Belarus in a nutshell

(MINSK) - Belarus is a Soviet-style state on the fringe of the European Union, ruled with a firm hand by President Alexander Lukashenko and cast by the West as the "bad boy" of formerly communist eastern Europe.

Herewith are some key facts about Belarus:

- Declared independent for a brief period in 1918, Belarus re-emerged as an independent state when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. A "union state" treaty was sealed with Russia in 2000, although President Alexander Lukashenko retains ultimate authority.

- 9.7 million inhabitants in an area around two-thirds the size of neighbouring Poland. While many claim Belarussian as their mother tongue, the language has been sidelined in favour of Russian.

- Heavy industry, fertilizer production, agriculture. Cheap natural gas from Russia provides a prop to the economy.

- Ruled since July 1994 by Lukashenko, an authoritarian figure who has since won two successive elections, both widely denounced as rigged.

- Described as "the last remaining dictatorship in Europe" by US President George W. Bush, speaking during a visit to neighbouring Latvia in May 2005.

- Belarus holds elections to its parliament, widely dismissed as a rubber-stamp body, on September 28. Next presidential polls are due in 2011.