(Reuters) - Belarus voted in a parliament election on Sunday that veteran President Alexander Lukashenko hopes will win Western endorsement and lead to better relations with Washington and the European Union.
Lukashenko, in power for 14 years, is accused by the West of rigging votes, muzzling the media and hounding the opposition.
He has sought to improve relations with the West after a row with traditional ally Russia over gas prices last year. With that aim, Belarus has released the last detainees considered by the European Union and United States to be political prisoners.
Here are some key facts about Belarus.
* The country borders three European Union members — Lithuania and Latvia to the north and Poland to the west — and ex-Soviet states Russia and Ukraine to the east and south. The population is 9.69 million. The capital is Minsk, where 1.7 million live.
* Belarus is a republic with a president elected for five-year terms. The president appoints the government, central bank governor and other officials. Lukashenko changed the constitution through a nationwide referendum in 2004 to enable him to run for more than two terms.
* Belarus was devastated in the course of the Nazi invasion and occupation of the Soviet Union from 1941. One in four citizens died.
* Belarus became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A drive to revive the Belarussian language and culture was halted by Lukashenko. He reinstated many Soviet-era symbols, including a flag and coat-of-arms.
* Belarus suffered more than any other country from the 1986 explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant across the border in Ukraine. A third of its territory was contaminated by radiation.
* Minsk and Moscow signed the first of several agreements in 1996 to combine their two countries in a “union state,” but little progress has been made on a post-Soviet merger. Russia doubled the price of gas for Belarus last year after a row over energy supplies. Lukashenko has accused Moscow of betrayal and trying to “strangle” Belarus.
* The economy is run on command lines, though there is private property and private business activity in the service sector. Key sectors are oil refining, chemicals and machine-building. Russia is the main trading partner, but Europe’s share of its trade is rising.
* The economy grew 10 percent and inflation stood at 12 percent last year.
* Belarus received its maiden sovereign debt ratings from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s last year. Lukashenko wants to sell some state assets and liberalise the economy. Some large foreign investors have already entered the Belarussian market.