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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Belarus: Background and U.S. Policy Concerns

Steven Woehrel
Specialist in European Affairs

Belarusian 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. Russian policy toward Belarus appears to be focused on gaining control of Belarus’s key economic assets while reducing the costs of subsidizing the Lukashenko regime.

For many years, the United States has 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. Belarus also limited the number of U.S. diplomats in Belarus to five persons.

From 2008 to 2010, 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 them were viciously beaten by police.

In January 2011, the EU and the United States imposed enhanced visa and financial sanctions against top Belarusian officials. The United States re-imposed sanctions against two key subsidiaries of Belneftekhim. They also pledged enhanced support for Belarusian pro-democracy and civil society groups. Although Lukashenko has released most of the political prisoners, about a dozen remain imprisoned. In response, the United States and the EU have imposed sanctions against additional prominent Belarusian officials, and 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 reauthorized the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004. It updated the provisions of the legislation to include the fraudulent December 2010 election and the ensuing crackdown. It also updated 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 legislation stated that it is the policy of the United States to call on the International Ice Hockey Federation to not hold the 2014 International World Ice Hockey championship in Minsk unless 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: February 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 13
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