President Aleksandr Lukashenko snuffed out Belarus’s modest progress toward democracy
and a free market economy in the early 1990s and created an authoritarian,
Sovietstyle regime. Belarus has close historical and cultural ties to
Russia. Efforts to establish a political and economic “union” between the
two countries have had substantial public support in Belarus. Nevertheless,
the pace of integration between Belarus and Russia has been fitful. Current
Russian policy toward Belarus appears to be focused on gaining control of Belarus’s
economic assets while reducing the costs of subsidizing the Belarusian
For many years, the United States limited ties to the regime while providing
modest support to pro-democracy organizations in Belarus. The United
States and the European Union also imposed sanctions on Belarusian
leaders. In March 2008, Belarus withdrew its ambassador from Washington
and forced the United States to recall its ambassador from Minsk, in response
to what Belarus perceived as a tightening of U.S. sanctions against
Belneftekhim, the state-owned petrochemicals firm. Later in 2008, the
United States and European Union suspended some sanctions in exchange for
very modest improvements on human rights issues.
This policy suffered a setback in December 2010, when Belarus held presidential
elections that observers from the OSCE viewed as falling far short of
international standards. Moreover, in response to an election-night
demonstration against electoral fraud in a square in central Minsk, the
Lukashenko regime arrested over 700 persons, including most of his opponents in
the election, as well as activists, journalists, and civil society
representatives. Some of those detained were viciously beaten by police.
On January 31, 2011, the EU and the United States imposed enhanced visa
and financial sanctions against top Belarusian officials. The United States
also reimposed sanctions against two key subsidiaries of Belneftekhim.
They also pledged enhanced support for Belarusian pro-democracy and civil
society groups. Although Lukaskhenko has released most of the political
prisoners, he has continued to imprison at least 10. In response, the United
States and the EU have imposed sanctions against additional prominent
Belarusian officials, and the businessmen and firms associated with them.
Congress has responded to the situation in Belarus with legislation. In January
2012, President Obama signed the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act.
The legislation reauthorizes the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004. It updates
the provisions of the legislation to include the fraudulent December 2010
election and the ensuing crackdown. It also updates the report the Administration
is required to file to include assistance provided by other governments or organizations
to assist the Belarusian government’s efforts to control the Internet. The bill
says it is the policy of the United States to call on the International
Ice Hockey Federation to suspend its plan to hold the 2014 International
World Ice Hockey championship in Minsk until the government of Belarus
releases all political prisoners. The move would be a serious blow to Lukashenko
personally, as he is known to be an avid hockey fan. .
Date of Report: May 3, 2012
Number of Pages: 10
Order Number: RS21982
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