By Tom Balmforth
President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled over Belarus' ailing command economy with an iron fist since 1994, relying on Russian energy subsidies while deftly sidestepping pressure to integrate with its old Soviet master and surrender sway to Moscow.
The country of 9.6 million is a key corridor for Russian oil and gas to Europe, with some 20 percent of Russian gas destined for Europe traversing Belarus' pipelines which are half owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom.
The International Monetary Fund economy in November found "serious vulnerabilities" in the economy, only just showing post-crisis growth this year.
And it has a rough time ahead of it in coming years, say analysts, especially if Lukashenko allows his often precarious political balancing act to chill relations with Russia as he did this fall.
For the moment ties appear back on track and Lukashenko last week won a $4 billion lifeline when Moscow agreed to charge the current price for next year's gas to Belarus and waive export duties on oil.
Russia has long had its eye on Belarus' three top oil refineries - used to turn a profit by exporting subsidized Russian oil to Europe - although Lukashenko has so far mostly managed to safeguard state-controlled business from outsiders.
The EU has fractionally relaxed its critical stance on Belarus and eased travel bans on Lukashenko, hoping to coax him away from Russia which aims to bring Belarus into its fold in a Customs Union alongside Kazakhstan.
Although its crooked human rights record has been a major stumbling block, Belarus would like to court the EU which, sharing borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, makes it a potential trade hub for Brussels.
Belarus is seen by Moscow as a buffer zone against NATO and EU expansion, while officials in at least EU member Poland see it as a bulwark against an "aggressive Russia" and ties with Lukashenko as a "lesser of two evils," according to a recent Wikileaks cable dated 2006.
Poland has historical affinities with Belarus from their co-statehood in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while the origins of the name "Belarus" are disputed in the country whose borders have shifted numerous times.
Opposition politicians have disappeared and the media is tightly muzzled in the police state famously called the "last dictatorship in Europe" by the Bush administration. Belarus' state-controlled media ranked 154th out of 178 countries in Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index and Transparency International placed it 124th in its corruption index.
Belarus is the last country in Europe to use the death penalty, administered by a "single shot" to the back of the head.
Belarus is officially a dual language country, with both Belarusian and Russian spoken, although under Lukashenko Russia has risen to ascendency, while Belarusian is often associated with the opposition. A colloquial blend of the two is also spoken - mostly in rural Belarus - called "trasianka."