Belarus is a large country in north eastern Europe. It shares borders with Lithuania, Latvia, Russia, Ukraine and Poland. The capital city is Minsk. Other big cities in Belarus are Brest and Homyel. Belarus is not part of the European Union. Its currency is the Belarusian ruble.
The region that is now modern-day Belarus was first settled by Slavic tribes in the 6th century. Belarus first declared independence on March 25, 1918, forming the Belarusian People's Republic. The Soviet Union (also known as the USSR) took control of Belarus almost a year later and Belarus became a member of the union in 1922.
Belarus became an independent country again on 27 July 1990. Alexander Lukashenko became the country's first and only president since independence. He won elections in 1994, 2001, 2006 and 2010 although organizations from around the world don't believe that the elections were fair and Belarus is considered to be Europe's only dictatorship.
Belarus is a landlocked country (it has no coastline) and is mostly flat. Belarus's highest point is Dzyarzhynskaya Hara at 345 metres. Belarus is bordered by Latvia on the north, Lithuania to the north west, Poland to the west, Russia to the north and east and Ukraine to the south.
There are many lakes and rivers across the country and 34% of the country is covered by forests. 20% of the southern part of Belarus is uninhabitable because of the affects of the Chernobyl (Ukraine) nuclear power plant accident in 1986. During winter Belarus can be very cold with average temperatures in January of only −6 °C but summers are usually as warm as other parts of northern Europe.
A significant part of the south-east of the country is off-limits as an exclusion zone because of the 1986 explosion at Chernobyl power plant across the border in Ukraine.
The population of Belarus is 9,724,723. Native people from Belarus, called Belarusians, make up about 81 percent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians.
Belarus has no official religion. Many people in Belarus practice or are a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, with minorities practicing Catholicism, Judaism, and other religions.
Education in Belarus is free for all levels and children are required to go to school between the ages of 6 to 15. After finishing basic education, each student is given a certificate by the state and is able to enter the workforce or serve in the military. Students do have the option of going for a higher education or train in a vocational school; the length of the schooling depends on what the student has chosen. The literacy rate is 100 percent.
Presently few tourists visit Belarus because it is one of Europe's poorest countries and because many don't consider the country to be democratic. Tourism can be difficult for Religious, political and journalistic activity so religious pilgrims, political activists and journalists may be refused entry to Belarus. Most visitors require a visa except for those from former Soviet union countries (but not Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Visitors should expect a thorough search of their bags when they arrive at Customs.
The capital city Minsk is popular with foreigners because of its churches. The city offers an insight into life in the old Soviet Union with many buildings and shops not renovated since independence. The KGB Museum presents a look at the Soviet Union's national security agency which investigated, spied and even tortured criminals and political dissidents in the past.
There are 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belarus including Mir Castle Complex and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park which forms part of Belarus's border with Poland.