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 Order Number: RL32534 Price: $29.95
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