A former Soviet Republic - though it was held by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944 and lost almost two and a half million people, including virtually the whole of its once large Jewish population - it became independent in 1991, if one can call being a close ally of Russia, and with an economy that is dependent on Moscow's generosity with gas prices and duty-free oil, independent. Not much has really changed, in other words, since Communism officially ended. President Lukashenko is now in his 20th year and likely to die in the job, despite theoretical elections; unless Comrade Putin gets fed up with him and bestows his favours elsewhere, which has been looking more likely over the last year or two. The government still owns most of the economy, opposition is ruthlessly suppressed, religion of any kind is prohibited, the media is strictly controlled, and ties with the Kremlin are so close they have even been discussing a Union State. Known in Amnesty and Protest circles simply as “The Last Dictatorship in Europe”, Human Rights Watch provides more detail:
"The human rights situation in Belarus saw little improvement in 2013. The state suppresses virtually all forms of dissent and uses restrictive legislation and abusive practices to impede freedoms of association and assembly. Journalists are routinely harassed and subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention. Eight political prisoners remain jailed. Those who have been released continue to face restrictions, ranging from travel limitations to inclusion in law enforcement agencies’ ‘watch lists’. Civil society groups cannot function freely. Belarusian courts sentenced two more people to death during 2013."
But of course we cannot allow ourselves to be guided by the biased propaganda of left-wing liberals like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. A fair and balanced picture (I am borrowing the phrase from the TV station that best epitomises it, Fox News) requires both sides, and Belarus.by/en provides the official version of this, and in English too. The three press items on its home page, at least on the day that I was writing this, did not in any way suggest that a cult of personality existed in Belarus, but rather gave praise where it was due to a President who cares about his people and is making progress happen:
Lukashenko praises vigorous development of Belarusian science; Lukashenko: Belarus will do everything to make life better for the youth; Lukashenko: Belarus hopes to host big football competitions.
One cannot help but admire a country that places a dump truck on the website through which it hopes to encourage foreign investment and tourism, and then has the bravery to describe this dump truck, this and nothing else in its history, its culture or even its sports, this, this dump truck, as "The Pride of Belarus" (I guess they would have preferred Victoria Azarenka, their star tennis player; and no doubt still would, if she were still world No. 1; but alas she is currently world No. 42, which is about the same position that Belarus holds in the standings of European liberty and culture).
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