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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: 378 - (26/07/12)

Alexander Lukashenko's sclerotic, USSR throwback regime continues to gain unenviable international attention. Commonly referred to as Europe's last dictatorship, relations with Belarus continue to be a 'national emergency' for the US, and concern for the diminishing of human rights has prompted the creation of a special UN envoy to observe affairs in this regime which repeatedly ranks as one of the most repressive in Europe.

Vladimir Putin visited Minsk on May 31, on his first foreign visit since his return to the presidency, a doubtless welcome assertion for Minsk that the Russian president plans to maintain close ties with the former Soviet sphere. Whilst Belarus is widely considered to be one of Russia's closest allies and a loyal and trusted partner, there have been periodic bursts of tensions between the two countries, notably when they came to a disagreement on gas prices last year. These tensions were entirely off the radar on Putin's visit, at which Lukashenko insisted that Belarus was "Moscow's closest and most loyal ally."

Economic matters dominated discussions. Moscow has agreed to release the third $440 million tranche of a $3 billion loan from Russia and countries from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). An agreement was also reached on financing a new nuclear power plant in the country's northwest. The solidarity between the two states has been harmonised by their increasing levels of repression - Lukashenko's crackdown on the political opposition which began after the disputed elections of last December, run in parallel with Putin's increasingly punitive attitude towards Russia's opposition movement. Both countries have proved impervious to international criticisms of their political practices. On this occasion, the two leaders issued a joint statement in which they asserted that "Russia and Belarus will coordinate efforts to counter attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the union state [of Russia and Belarus] and the countries making up the [CES]" and added that they would ignore efforts to "apply pressure through the introduction of restrictive measures or sanctions."

Minsk will have been disappointed to see another seven European countries join the EU sanction regimes, which began in February. Albania, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro are all participating in the sanctions which aim to pressure the government into liberalizing the regime and freeing political opponents. The EU is not the only international body which voices continual criticism of the state. In mid-June, US President Barack Obama announced that he would continue the designation of 'national emergency' in terms of relations with Belarus. This in effect means that Washington continues to believe that sanctions must be upheld against regime officials and certain companies which contravene transparent democratic procedures. This designation was first conferred upon the regime in 2006, and it is clear that little has been done since then to improve Belarus' rights record. If anything, since 2011, the US President opined, the situation has worsened, commenting, "The Government of Belarus has taken additional steps backward in the development of democratic governance and respect for human rights." The Lukashenko regime quickly denounced the decision. On June 15 Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh lambasted the designation as "Washington's stereotypical attitude to Belarus." On July 5, it was announced that the UN Human Rights Council will appoint an investigator to focus specifically on Belarus as a result of 'grave concern' regarding human rights violations. In its 'Nations in Transit 2012' report, U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House also noted a decline in the state of Belarus.

Equally, 60 members of the Parliamentary Assembly from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 21 countries have co-sponsored a proposal to have the 2014 International Ice Hockey World Championships, currently scheduled to take place in Belarus, hosted elsewhere. The resolution charges the regime with failing to observe human rights, with repressing the political opposition through imprisonment, house arrests, torture and a number of violent tactics. The sporting calendar provided another opportunity for rights activists to criticize the Lukashenko regime. When the President attended the Euro 2012 match final in Ukraine, (whose rights record was also vehemently criticized during the period) Ukrainian female protest group Femen, staged an eye-catching protest outside Kiev's Olympic stadium in which they imitated the President's bodyguards.

If it seems that Belarus is somewhat less isolated in its authoritarianism (with neighbours Ukraine and Hungary also rolling back democratic advances) the President has also been emphasizing solidarity with sympathetic regimes further afield. At the end of June, Lukashenko was in Cuba on June 25 meeting President Raul Castro. Bilateral trade with Cuba apparently stands at $50 million; on the agenda was financial investment, in particular, the opening of a truck repair and modernization centre on the island. Lukashenko subsequently met with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, which is the Eastern European state's largest trading partner in South America. According to recent figures, bilateral trade between these countries has rapidly increased of late, from $6 million in 2006 to $1.3 billion in 2011. The President then travelled to Ecuador where he agreed with President Rafael that the countries would establish stronger military ties. Attempts to assert links with other similarly autocratic world powers, to quote Belarus' foreign ministry's own words, is an attempt to create a 'multipolar world'. Since Belarus faces complete isolation when looking westwards in Europe, asserting a nexus of global socialist states is an appealing endeavour.

Something noted by the press upon Lukashenko's Latin American tour trip was the perennial presence of his son - Kolya - who, at the tender age of 7, has been photographed on numerous occasions hobnobbing with world leaders, occasionally wielding his very own gold pistol. Tipped as his successor, Kolya is an omnipresent mascot, a walking gimmick designed to show the softer side of the steely leader. Whilst the fact that Kolya is clearly being groomed as a successor has been noted widely by commentators, Lukashenka made his intentions for his ubiquitous son perfectly clear, stating, "You're correct in pointing out that my kid is here alongside us. This shows that we have seriously and lastingly established the foundation for our cooperation and that in 20 to 25 years there will be someone to take over the reins of this cooperation." Such an open avowal that the Belarusian people will, the President hopes, have no choice in their leader, was unsurprisingly met with despair.

The possibility of being ruled one day by Kolya, however frightening, is not however the immediate concern of Belarusian civil society. There are other more immediate despair-inducing examples of repression. Firstly, exiled former Belarusian crime investigator Andrey Pyzhyk, who is a known government critic, was detained in Poland on June 5, as the Belarusian authorities requested his extradition to Belarus. Pyzhyk had appeared in a documentary about the Minsk subway bombings which questioned the official investigation, a fact which saw him placed on Interpol's wanted list by the regime. Fortunately for the former policeman, Poland refused to extradite him. Another Pole, Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist for the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza", also found himself a target of Lukashenko's wrath. On June 21 he was detained by the police after a search of his apartment, during which, his wife told the press, they confiscated computers and threatened "not to leave him alone" until he agreed to cease criticizing Lukashenko. His wife told police that she believes his detention may relate to her husband's work on the same documentary on the 2011 bombings. Last year Poczobut spent three months in jail before receiving a three-year suspended sentence for slandering the president. Poland has demanded his immediate release and recalled the Belarusian ambassador to Warsaw. According to the Polish government, counterparts from the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia support the Polish stance on the matter. In addition to this, on July 5, the EU adopted a result calling for an investigation into the case of Poczobut, who is also of the chairman of the Council of the Union of Poles in Belarus. The statement issued by the EU lawmakers "deplores the fact that the Belarusian authorities are making it impossible for journalists to operate, by introducing repressive laws aimed at silencing civil society activities." In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, the co-founder of the radical Belarus Free Theatre company, Natalia Kaliada, lamented that "New arrests are taking place. New people are going to jail for long-term sentences. Even rock concerts are banned in Belarus. Nothing has changed since the Soviet Union".

Since within contemporary Belarusian society freedom of expression scarcely exists, a number of domestic and international bodies have taken it upon themselves to tackle the problem. The aforementioned Belarus Free Theatre company has worked abroad to great acclaim in works which have challenged the political structure. Another somewhat theatrical event, but in an entirely different form, drew international attention to the problem. On July 4, Tomas Mazetti, working on behalf of Swedish public relations firm Studio Total violated Belarusian air space and orchestrated a "teddy drop" from a single engine plane. According to the press release for the 'Teddybear Airdrop Minsk 2012', "the airplane was loaded with 1,000 teddy bears holding signs demanding the right to free speech in English and Belarusian." The bears were then dropped over the town of Ivyanets. The authorities denied these reports as a hoax, which prompted the organisers to provide video evidence. The review was met with mixed reactions among rights defenders in Belarus, partly because the PR firm behind it has a history of orchestrating bizarre stunts, and also because some said, the gesture had little in the way of serious political action. One journalist, Anton Suryapin, who photographed the bears and uploaded pictures onto his website Belarus News Photos, was arrested and spent three days in jail. Another somewhat more welcome intervention came on the part of Swedish pop singer Loreen, the winner of the Eurovision song contest. Having been invited to play at a music festival in the northern city of Vitebsk, the singer took the opportunity to meet with right activists, among them Natallya Pinchuk, the wife of imprisoned Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalyatski, and with Byalyatski's deputy in the human rights group Vyasna, Valyantsin Stefanovich at the Swedish embassy in Minsk. She signed a petition calling for the end of the death penalty and spoke of her desire to see human rights honoured in the state.

Looming large on the political horizon are parliamentary elections which will take place September 23. Since the last elections, the presidentials in December 2011, prompted the severe and alarming crackdown on the opposition, observers have good reason to fear that this trip to the polls will fail to adhere to democratic standards. Whilst Lukashenko has affirmed that international observers will be allowed to attend, he also issued a warning that "no external interference will be accepted." Summer might have come to Belarus, but the political regime remains frozen.






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