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The present borders of Belarus were established during the turmoil of World War II.
The former Soviet republic was occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944, when it lost 2.2 million people, including most of its large Jewish population.
It became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over a decade later, the sense of national identity is weak and the nature of political links with Russia remains a key issue.
In the post-war years Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises. Private business is virtually non-existent. Foreign investors stay away and even Moscow has shown signs of exasperation.
With Lukashenko at the helm, Belarus has sought closer ties with Russia. On the political front, there has been much talk of union but little tangible evidence of real progress, at least certainly not toward the union of equals dreamt of by President Lukashenko.
Belarus is very heavily dependent on Russian gas to meet its energy needs. The extent of this dependence was highlighted when the supply was cut off briefly in early 2004 in a dispute over prices. The two sides reached agreement some months later but the incident underlined the vulnerability of the Belarusian economy.
Under Lukashenko's authoritarian rule, any opposition is dealt with harshly. There is little sign of concern over Western criticism of human rights abuses.
Population: 9.9 million (UN, 2003)
Area: 207,595 sq km (80,153 sq miles)
Major language: Russian, Belarusian (both official)
Major religion: Christianity
Life expectancy: 65 years (men), 75 years (women) (UN)
Monetary unit: 1 Belarusian rouble = 100 kopeks
Main exports: Machinery, chemical and petroleum products
GNI per capita: US $1,360 (World Bank, 2002)
Internet domain: .by
International dialling code: +375
The Belarusian authorities been heavy criticised by human rights and media organisations for suppressing freedom of speech, muzzling the independent press and denying the opposition access to state-owned media.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Belarus as one of the 10 "worst places to be a journalist" in 2003.
The president's administration controls decisions on content and the appointment of senior editors of state media.
Government-controlled newspapers enjoy considerable state subsidies and financial privileges, while many of the opposition print media have faced increased charges, been forced to close down, change name or publish abroad.
But some leading privately-owned newspapers survive thanks to popular demand. They include Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, which was forced to close temporarily in 2003 in a move described by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as a "new offensive" in the government's harassment of the private press.
The Belarusian National State Teleradio Company operates domestic radio and TV channels and an external radio service.
Some radio stations target Belarusian listeners from outside the country. They include Radio Baltic Waves, a private broadcaster based in Vilnius, Lithuania. Its aim is "to deliver uncensored news and information to Belarus".
Radio Ratsyya ("Radio Reason") is a Belarusian-language radio station based in Bialystok, Poland. Its broadcasts are aimed at Belarusians in Poland as well as Belarus.