MINSK - Scorned as Europe's last dictatorship, ranked dismally by rating agencies and possessing few natural resources, Belarus has struggled to attract foreign investors.
But now, in a push to revive its cash-strapped economy and lessen its dependence on Russia, the reclusive state is seeking to open up to the West and overturn its image as "the last remaining true dictatorship in Europe," a label used by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
At an economic forum in the capital Minsk this month, potential investors praised the country's plans to form a new customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan from July 2010.
As part of the bloc of ex-Soviet states, Belarus could become a gateway for businesses that want to break into the vast Russian market but are deterred by Russia's corruption and red tape, they said.
Unlike neighbouring Ukraine, Belarus has remained relatively insulated from the global financial crisis and offers investors a measure of political stability under strongman Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
Other advantages touted by officials include the country's pool of skilled labour and its developed infrastructure, as well as recent efforts to ease investment barriers by reducing taxes and reforming property rights.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month praised Belarus' fiscal policies and response to the crisis, saying that authorities had also made progress on reforms to develop the private sector.
Nevertheless, the reclusive state of 10 million people only has an economy the size of Sudan's. It is one of the world's lowest-rated countries according to Moody's and Standards and Poor's ratings agencies.
The state still controls some 75 percent of the economy, with investors complaining of heavy-handed bureaucracy, a complex tax system and price controls.
International businessmen were upbeat at the forum, however. They stressed the importance of the proposed customs union in eliminating trade barriers.
"The customs union will make things easier. This will turn into a large domestic market," Gerhard Hoesl, who heads German engineering giant Siemens in Belarus, told AFP.
"This will help Belarus a great deal," he added, comparing the role of the anticipated customs union to that of the EU economic bloc.
The potential of the new customs union is being underestimated by the West, Dutch businessman Hennie Kuijken said: "Nobody realizes what will happen here in a short time."
For its part, Belarus is doing its utmost to publicize the impending deal. The executive secretary of the customs union, Sergei Glazyev, said the new bloc would increase the countries' gross domestic product by 19 percent by 2015.
Nonetheless, Belarus will find it difficult to transform its image as long as its economy remains predominantly under state control and opposition protests are regularly crushed by riot police.