Andrew Osborn








Factfile: Belarus, a little piece of Europe stuck in a time warp, 20th December 2010 16:24

Belarus hosts a 1,800 mile stretch of the strategically important Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline carrying oil from Russia to the European Union.

Germany and Poland in particular rely on oil pumped via Belarus.

Though the two countries have had high-profile disagreements in recent years, Belarus is one of Russia's few allies in the former Soviet Union and the Kremlin wants it to stay that way. The two countries conduct joint military exercises and Belarus is inching towards deeper economic and possibly even political integration with Moscow. Russia sees Belarus as a useful geopolitical buffer zone against the European Union.

With no stock market and 80 percent of the economy in state hands, Belarus is seen as a lucrative business opportunity if and when it opens up. Russian investors have already started to enter the market.

Belarus is a major arms exporter, shipping Soviet-era weaponry around the world. It is also suspected of re-exporting Russian weapons to regimes and countries that Moscow cannot be seen to be dealing with directly. Belarus has in the past been accused of supplying weapons to various nations in breach of United Nations embargoes. Earlier this year, it was reported that Belarus had sold S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Belarus denied that allegation.

With a population of just under ten million people, Belarus would be an obvious candidate to join the European Union if it ever threw off autocracy.

Belarus also hosts a long stretch of the Yamal pipeline that carries about one fifth of Russian gas supplies to Europe.