MINSK, Belarus – It has been dubbed by critics as the "last dictatorship" in Europe and for decades has been one of the world's most closed countries. The former Soviet stronghold of Belarus was almost included in the U.S. travel ban earlier this year and continues to be blacklisted by the European Union with a protracted arms embargo.
So what's going on inside the small Eastern European country of just 9 million?
President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the country since 1994, taking power right after the fall of the USSR in 1992.
"He is called the last dictator in Europe because Belarus has basically continued to be a Soviet-style state. He is the leader of a one-party state, just like the Soviet Union was ruled," Matthew Schmidt, a professor of national decurity and political science at the University of New Haven, told Fox News. "If you want to see what the USSR was like, go to [its capital] Minsk."
But how much longer Lukashenko will rule the country is unclear. Putin reportedly has his sights on the country and wants to annex it into Russia.
"Putin would like to add the country to his fiefdom," Schmidt said. "It's strategically located, and culturally and linguistically there's little standing in the way. Lukashenko is aging, and I could see him transfer power to Moscow as his own ebbs. It would be a big coup for Putin."
Belarus' lifeblood has centered on the Stalin-erected Minsk, which maintains swaths of symbols from Soviet times. Its countryside is also peppered with ecclesiastical palaces illuminating the vast wealth and power of yesteryear. Belarus boasts four World Heritage Sites, including two castles at Mir Nesvizh.
A "Lenin Street" adorns every town, in homage to Vladimir Lenin, the communist ruler and head of the Soviet Union until 1924. Its intelligence unit is still called the KGB. Restaurants and public places mandate that all coats be checked. Just a few years ago, a Soviet-style shopping mall opened.
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Its roads and parks are perfectly manicured without a hint of trash or graffiti. There is no road rage nor voracious car-honking. Traffic doesn't clog the wide lanes, and people don't raise their voices. Civilians are courteous, and most spend their Sundays at church, having sought a deeper spiritual meaning after the crash of communism almost three decades ago.
Community farms remain a staple, as do state-run institutions such as the circus – complete with a bevy of animal tricks that would make most western animal welfare sympathizers wince. But wedged between Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Russia, Belarus is also a growing technology center. The popular chat messenger Viber was created by Belarusians a decade ago.
Nights are spent in bars with vodka pairings, summers in forest homes known as "dachas," and winters gliding through ice-skating rinks – now one of the most popular recreational activities, coupled with ice hockey, considered a personal favorite pastime of Lukashenko.
Some locals still recall the excitement and surprise when the Golden Arches arrived in the 1990s – their first visceral taste of stars and stripes. But unlike classical authoritarian places that govern other regions of the world, there are no state-sanctioned presidential posters and statues or billboards erected on buildings on the independence square in Lukashenko's likeness.
It is the last country in Europe to have capital punishment on the books. Insulting the president is punishable by up to five years in prison, and criticizing Belarus abroad is punishable by up to two years behind bars.
Lukashenko, now 65, is known for his charisma, trademark mustache, eccentricities and self-promotion as a "man of the people." His personal life, too, is a topic of private whispers – his high school sweetheart and wife, Galinka, has long been living on a farm far from the capital. Meanwhile, the leader has been spotted routinely at public functions with a beauty queen in her early 20s – and he doesn't shy away from making good-humored jokes about his "dictator" tag in the west.
Reporters Without Borders last year ranked Belarus 153 out of 180 countries in its press freedom index. However, it is consistently ranked in global surveys as being one of the top 10 countries for the lowest crime and unrest.
But its history is one with tragedy and bloodshed. Upwards of 40 percent – some 3 million – citizens were killed during the Second World War. The country was overtaken by Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1944, bringing about the absolute destruction of more than two-thirds of its cities and decimating its Jewish population.
At one chilling memorial ghetto in the beautifully sleepy western town of Novogrudok, photographs and remnants remain of the hundreds of women escorted out by the Nazis to be shot and the hundreds who survived following a daring tunnel escape. That remarkable act of Nazi defiance was orchestrated by the bold Rae Kushner – Jared Kushner's paternal grandmother – who was just 16 when she was summoned to the ghetto with her family. Subsequently, the Kushner name carries steep remembrance and respect in Belarus, considered to be a front-runner in Holocaust education and commemoration.
Moreover, it bore much of the brunt of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, with some 70 percent of the radioactive fallout wafting into Belarus, according to the UN-tied Chernobyl International, contaminating a significant portion of people and agriculture, prompting the relocation of at least half a million people.
Last month, the European Union extended an arms embargo and asset freeze on Belarus through to 2021. The restrictions, centered on a ban on trade in arms and equipment first signed in 2004, were re-upped on the guise that it "could be used for internal repression."
"Their concern isn't external aggression, but internal suppression of its people," noted Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, a Defense Priorities expert analyst.
And earlier this year, Washington insiders started scratching their heads after it was revealed that Belarus was on the draft list of countries to be added to the U.S. travel restrictions list. According to DHS officials at the time, the department conducted a global review of countries last year and deemed several – of which Belarus was named – a public safety threat. Yet the former Soviet nation has no recent history of terror attacks.
According to Lora Ries, a senior research fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, the U.S. typically imposes travel restraints on countries that fail to adhere to important criteria.
"If a country doesn't issue modern, electronic passports; report loss or theft of their nationals' passports to Interpol or to the U.S.; shares on request, other identity information the U.S. can use to validate the identity of a passport holder, it can be deemed deficient," she explained. "The second is information sharing. Countries that do not adequately share information on known or suspected terrorists, information on criminals allowing them to be identified prior to entering the U.S., or examples of fraudulent passports for DHS training purposes are subject to being ruled deficient."
The U.S. did impose sanctions on nine state-owned entities and 16 individuals – including Lukashenko – in 2006 in the wake of a presidential election much of the international community considered to be contrived. The sanctions were somewhat tempered five years ago after Minsk released a political prisoner, and also chose not to recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ivana Stradner, a research fellow specializing in Eastern European security at the American Enterprise Institute, further highlighted that "although initially Belarus was supposed to appear on the travel ban list when the Trump administration announced that it was expanding its list to include six more countries, Belarus wasn't included."
"However, the U.S. was probably using the ban list to threaten Lukashenko for perceived efforts to merge Belarus with Russia," she said.
Nonetheless, Washington has taken steps to improve its diplomatic relationship with Minsk in recent times. Early last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk as part of an effort to bring back ambassadors for both countries after more than 10 years of strained relations. Pompeo also sought to ease rising tensions between Minsk and Moscow, although Belarus is seemingly on the wish list of Russian President Putin.
After weeks of talks that failed to end in an agreement, Russia turned off the oil taps it subsidized to Belarus at the beginning of this year, sparking schisms between the once close-knit countries. Lukashenko has publicly stated that Moscow has impressed it wants to once again absorb Belarus into a "Union State."
"The relationship between Russia and Belarus is a complicated one," said John Wood, analyst and author of "Russia, the Asymmetric Threat to the United States." "On the one hand, Russia likes the plausible denial Belarus gives it to sell arms to rogue regimes. On the other hand, Belarus is increasingly wary of its overbearing neighbor and, as a result, has tried to do its own thing in Russia's backyard of Central Asia."
Stradner said the U.S. should prevent Belarus from becoming the next Crimea.
"The U.S. did nothing to stop Russian aggression in Ukraine -- it is even less likely that it will intervene for Belarus," Stradner said. "Obama made a mistake when he pointed an empty gun at Russia during the Ukraine crisis."