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. There are about 400,000 ethnic Poles living in the west of the country.
It has been ruled with an increasingly iron fist since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko. Opposition figures are subjected to harsh penalties for organising protests. In early 2005, Belarus was listed by the US as Europe's only remaining "outpost of tyranny". Belgium
Belarus Tourist Attractions
The country became independent in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. More than a decade later, the sense of national identity is weak, its international isolation is intensifying and the nature of political links with Russia remains a key issue.
In the Soviet post-war years, Belarus became one of the most prosperous parts of the USSR, but with independence came economic decline. President Lukashenko has steadfastly opposed the privatisation of state enterprises. Private business is virtually non-existent. Foreign investors stay away.
For much of his career, Mr Lukashenko has sought to develop closer ties with Russia. On the political front, there was talk of union but little tangible evidence of real progress, and certainly not toward the union of equals dreamt of by President Lukashenko.
Belarus remains heavily dependent on Russia to meet its own energy needs and a considerable proportion of Russian oil and gas exports to Europe pass through it. There was a sharp rise in tension between the two countries at the end of 2006 when Moscow threatened to cut the gas supply until Minsk reluctantly agreed to a deal more than doubling the price.
Relations took a further turn for the worse immediately afterwards when a row over oil exports and related tax rates prompted Russia to cut the supply along the oil export pipeline to Europe. The sides soon reached agreement and the oil flow resumed but not before the row had put Russia's energy muscle back in the spotlight.