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Key Economic Data 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
Millions of US $ 17,493 14,304 12,200 76
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,590 1,360 1,290 122
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Belarus

Update No: 329 - (26/01/12)

One year on from the flawed 2010 presidential elections that saw authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko maintain his grip on power; Belarus is falling under harsher sanctions from the West, giving Russia the opportunity to extend its influence over European gas markets.

Lukashenko has been in office since 1994 and won another term in a December 2010 vote that was marred by fraud and criticised by international observers. The vote sparked large protests that police brutally dispersed and seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested alongside thousands of political activists. On 19 December 2011 – the one year anniversary of a rally attended by 15,000 protesters that was violently crushed – around 100 people gathered in Independence Square in Minsk to leave photos of political prisoners and light candles, but the meeting was broken up by police and around 30 people were arrested.

Opposition to Lukashenko's regime is being crushed from all corners. Within the past two months, the Belarus' government has imposed harsher jail terms on politicians opposed to Lukashenko and all but eradicated freedom of information. On December 13, jailed leader of the Belarusian opposition Youth Front organisation, Zmitser Dashkevich, had his term in solitary confinement, which began in September, prolonged until April. On January 12, former Belarusian presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich – who was jailed for six years in May for "organising mass disturbances" on December 19th 2010 – was given a three-year prison term in a "closed regime”, which means that he will be kept in his cell twenty-four hours a day.

But this hasn't stopped at silencing prominent members of the political opposition. Early last summer, a movement inspired by the Arab spring "The Revolution via Social Networks" (RSN) helped coordinate protests online. Belarus' government banned spontaneous political rallies shortly after unrest began and so the RSN called on people to demonstrate without using slogans, flags or shouts and to voice their anger by simply clapping their hands or setting their mobile phone alarms to go off at a specified time. The phenomenon brought dissent to towns across Belarus usually loyal to Lukashenko, prompting the leader to crack down on internet use.

On 6 January, the government approved a law tightening official control over the web. Under the new legislation, internet cafes cannot allow their users to visit any sites hosted outside the country without being "monitored" by the owner, and Belarusians who allow their friends to use their internet connection at home will be responsible for the sites they visit. All commercial activity online is now illegal unless conducted via a .by (Belarusian) domain name and anyone caught visiting a banned site will be fined half a month's wages for a single view. In essence, the law requires that all Belarusian's spy on each other's online activity and bans people from looking at content that isn't approved by the state.

Even before this law was passed, many Belarusians felt that information controls had gone too far and, when two members of the Belarusian National Bolshevik Party (NBP) tried to highlight the bias within the state media, they were arrested. On 3 December, Yauhen Kontush and Uladzislau Lobau, who are members of the NBP's organisational committee, dumped a bucket of boiled noodles at the entrance to the Belarusian Television and Radio Company in Minsk, and then passed out leaflets calling on journalists at the company to give "unbiased, true, and timely information to Belarusian society."

Another member of the organisational committee, Dzmitry Sinyak, told Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty that the action was symbolic as the Russian phrase “to hang noodles on someone's ears” means to tell a lie. “We just wanted to show the current state of our country's state media outlets,” Sinyak said. “They are very biased and give one-sided information without any alternative viewpoints.”

As Lukashenko continues on his authoritarian path, the West is stepping up sanctions against his aides. In January 2011, in response to the flawed presidential election and subsequent crackdown on the opposition, the EU imposed a travel ban against the Belarusian government. In June, the bloc extended sanctions, forbidding any European country from trading with BelTechExport, the country's
main arms manufacturer, as well as Sport Pari, which runs Belarus' lucrative lottery, and Private Unitary
Enterprise, a telecommunications company. Last month, America followed suit.

On January 4, President Barack Obama signed The Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, expanding the list of Belarus officials subject to US visa and financial sanctions to include those involved in the post-election crackdown. It also requires the US State Department to report to Congress on Belarusian arms sales and internet censoring, and calls on the International Ice Hockey Federation to cancel its plan to hold the 2014 World Ice Hockey Championship in Minsk.
The law, which updates similar 2004 and 2006 legislation, also says it is US policy to “support calls for new presidential and parliamentary elections [in Belarus], conducted in a manner that is free and fair.”

Having lost any sway in the West, the Belarus' government has run out of bargaining chips with Russia and is now being being squeezed to toe Moscow's line. Belarus, which has hardly any private companies operating within its territory, is in dire financial straits and its currency reserves are drying up. The government applied for an emergency loan of up to $8bn (£5bn) from the International Monetary Fund last June, but its request was rebuffed. In an effort to inject cash into the economy and stave off economic collapse, Lukashenko has sold off one of Belarus' major assets to Moscow.

On 24 November Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom bought Belarus' pipeline operator Beltransgaz. The gas giant already owned 50 per cent of the company and paid $2.5 billion for the remaining stake, giving Russia total control over gas exports through Belarus.

Gazprom, which expects to deliver 152 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas to Europe this year, sends around 20 per cent of the European Union's fuel through Belarus, the rest via Ukraine. Before Christmas, the company launched direct gas supplies to Germany through the undersea Nord Stream pipeline and, on 28 December, Turkey gave the go-ahead for Gazprom to begin constructing the South Stream Pipeline, which will carry gas from Russia and Kazakhstan to Serbia via Turkey – a direct competitor to Europe's planned Nabucco pipeline.

The bad news about this latest deal with Belarus is that Russia is strengthening its monopoly on gas supplies; the good news is that gas shortages seen in the past when Belarus and Russia have squabbled over transit fees are no longer likely. Lukashenko's show of strength domestically has served to reveal his weakness on the world stage.

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