Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe, bordered by Russia to the north and east, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the north. Its capital is Minsk; other major cities include Brest, Grodno (Hrodna), Gomel (Homiel), Mahilyow (MahiloÅ) and Vitebsk (Viciebsk). Forty percent of the country is forested, and its strongest economic sectors are agriculture and manufacturing.
Until the 20th century, the Belarusians lacked the opportunity to create a distinctive national identity because for centuries the lands of modern-day Belarus belonged to several ethnically different countries, including the Duchy of Polatsk, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic (1918–19), Belarus became a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, the Byelorussian SSR.
The final unification of Belarusian lands within its modern borders took place in 1939, when the ethnically Belarusian-Russian lands held by the Second Polish Republic (interwar Poland) were annexed into the USSR under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet pact, and attached to Soviet Belarus. The territory and its nation were devastated in World War II, during which Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources; the republic was redeveloped in the post-war years.
The parliament of the republic declared the sovereignty of Belarus on 27 July 1990, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared independence on 25 August 1991. Alexander Lukashenko has been the country's president since 1994. During his presidency, Lukashenko has implemented Soviet-era policies, such as state ownership of the economy, despite objections from Western governments. Since 2000, Belarus and Russia signed a treaty for greater cooperation, with some hints of forming a Union State.
Most of Belarus' population of 9.85 million reside in the urban areas surrounding Minsk and other oblast (regional) capitals. More than 80% of the population are native Belarusians, with sizable minorities of Russians, Poles and Ukrainians. Since a referendum in 1995, the country has had two official languages: Belarusian and Russian. The Constitution of Belarus does not declare an official religion, although the primary religion in the country is Russian Orthodox Christianity. The second most popular, Roman Catholicism, has a much smaller following by comparison, but both Orthodox and Catholic Christmas and Easter are officially respected as national holidays.