If it were not for the character of its president, few people beyond the borders of the old USSR would be aware of the existence of Belarus.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Bel arus is that it doesn't wish to be a state at all. The dream of most Belarussians is to be united with Russia. No other ex-Soviet republic so bemoans the break-up of the USSR. This can be explained by the essentially patriarchal attitude of the country's citizens and the very high percentage of pensioners - higher than in any other former Soviet country. Add to this the fact that around 20 per cent of the adult population has only primary education, and it is possible to understand why Belarussians are so fond of their "Man of the People" president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Before Belarus declared independence in 1991, Lukashenko dreamed of achieving success in the highest echelons of the Communist Party, but being brash and tactless and not having the right connections he was never given more than a secondary role. For Lukashenko, the break-up of the USSR was a personal tragedy. The end of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union looked to be the end of his hopes of achieving power.
But strangely enough, Belarussians did not seem to notice the political turmoil of the early 1990s. They went on living in their own little Soviet Union. Not even the name of the infamous secret police was changed - to this day, it is called the KGB. No new politicians appeared in the newly independent state and the older members of the communist elite struggled among themselves for power. In the past, they had kept Lukashenko out of the top jobs, but now the younger ex-communists realised that they could defeat the old hierarchy.
In the first post-Soviet election in Belarus, there were two main candidates: the "old elite" candidate Vyacheslav Kebich and the "new elite" candidate Alexander Lukashenko. Interestingly, both fought on the same platform - to unite Belarus with Russia as soon as possible. Many documents concerning the possibility of unification have been signed by the Minsk and Kremlin governments since then, and there has been much talk about what role the Belarussian leadership would have in a united state. Lukashenko, of course, has his eye on the main job in the Kremlin, but Moscow manages to sidestep the issue when he demands concrete action. The Russians dislike Lukashenko, but they would be even less happy to have another pro-western neighbour with a democratic president. So the Kremlin sits tight, praying for the emergence in Belarus of a more convenient and predictable politician with pro-Russian views.
Meanwhile Lukashenko, miffed with the Russians, continues to go about his favourite business: fighting his enemies. The enthusiasm with which he does this has won him a place on the list of the world's dictators. Belarus is a marshy country, and a good many political opponents of Lukashenko have been lost there. At the beginning of his reign, there were several scandals over the disappearance of journalists and key government figures who did not see eye to eye with him; more recently, his opponents have found themselves arrested and sent to prison.
Under Soviet rule, Lukashenko was a Kom somol leader with an aggressively dogmatic approach to his responsibilities. He once beat a tractor driver to within an inch of his life for arriving drunk at work. There is no indication that Lukashenko has mellowed with age, so it is best not to upset the man, because now he has the Belarussian police and KGB to deal with anyone he dislikes. Lukashenko follows developments in neighbouring countries extremely closely and takes things very much to heart. Recently, in the capital, Minsk, Belarussian airport police prevented the Ukrainian president's aide from leaving the plane he had just arrived in because he was on Belarus's list of "known terrorists". In the end, the unfortunate presidential aide had to return to Kiev on the same plane.
After this year's presidential elections, both of Lukashenko's rivals, Alexander Kozulin and Alexander Milinkevich, were sent to prison, as were less high-profile opposition figures. Luka shenko accuses all his opponents of being spies and puppets of the US. The Belarussian KGB is constantly "uncovering" foreign secret service plots against the Belarussian president and foreign diplomats are watched very closely, especially those from countries which support the opposition, such as Poland, Lithuania, the US and Ukraine. Representing one of these countries in Belarus can be a lethal occupation. Not long ago, the vice-consul of Poland was found dead, apparently having been killed by an electric shock device. His body was also badly bruised. Most recently, an employee of the Lithuanian embassy fell to his death from a hotel window in unexplained circumstances.
What a person says about themselves is usually more illuminating than anything said by someone else. Perhaps Lukashenko's most revealing utterance is this: "For the sake of peace in the country, I am prepared to sacrifice my own common sense."
Andrey Kurkov is a novelist and writer