Alexander Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe's last dictator, was inaugurated for a fourth term as president in January 2011.
The announcement of the presidential election result in December 2010 was followed by violent confrontations in the capital Minsk between the security forces and thousands of opposition demonstrators protesting about alleged vote-rigging.
A former state farm director, Mr Lukashenko was first elected president in 1994, following his energetic performance as chairman of the parliamentary anti-corruption committee.
A 1996 referendum gave the president greatly increased powers at the expense of parliament and extended his term by two years. He won a further five years in office in 2001 presidential elections condemned as undemocratic by Western observers. Another referendum in October 2004 supported lifting the two-term limit on Mr Lukashenko's rule, allowing him to stand again in 2006 and 2010.
Over the years, several opposition politicians who might have provided leadership have disappeared or been imprisoned. Insulting the president, even in jest, carries a prison sentence.
The president remains defiant in the face of Western pressure for change. He has dismissed all possibility of revolutions such as those which brought an end to old-style regimes in Georgia and neighbouring Ukraine.
The government maintained its stranglehold on politics in the 2008 parliamentary elections, winning all seats.
The release in late 2008 of several opposition activists prompted a slight loosening of EU and US sanctions, and tentative talk of a thaw in relations with the West. However, this process was thrown into reverse after the 2010 presidential elections and has shown no sign of improvement since.