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Belarus - US Relations

The United States Government's top priority in Belarus remains democratic reform and the current political environment in the country precludes substantive bilateral cooperation in any sphere, including in the military realm. The United States recognized Belarusian independence on December 25, 1991. After the two countries established diplomatic relations, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk was officially opened on January 31, 1992. The two countries exchanged top-level official visits in the early years of independence. Stanislau Shushkevich, the head of state as the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus, met with President Bill Clinton in Washington in July 1992, and President Clinton visited Belarus in January 1994. After this high point, bilateral relations cooled following the election of Lukashenka as President in July 1994.

Ambassador David H. Swartz, the first Ambassador to Belarus, officially assumed post on August 25, 1992, the first anniversary of Belarusian independence, and departed post on completion of his term in late January 1994. On November 7, 1994, Ambassador Kenneth S. Yalowitz assumed post. He was succeeded by Ambassador Daniel V. Speckhard, who served from August 1997 to August 2000, but spent 1 year in Washington after the Government of Belarus confiscated his diplomatic residence, along with those of other ambassadors. Michael G. Kozak served as U.S. Ambassador from October 2000 to August 2003. George A. Krol served as U.S. Ambassador from September 2003 to July 2006. Karen B. Stewart replaced Ambassador Krol as U.S. Ambassador and arrived in Belarus on September 18, 2006.

By early 2006 Belarusian state media had become increasingly venomous in its daily attacks against the U.S. and the West. Common themes include charges of espionage, of Western attempts to destabilize the country, and of attempts to overthrow the government in a forced "color" revolution. Comparisons between Nazi Germany and the U.S., which make the Nazis look good, are becoming more common. Truly bizarre and generally offensive accusations is mainly the purview of state newspaper Respublika, although BT television dips down to this level with frightening regularity. Typical examples of this sort of reporting include: The USG used hypnosis to turn Gorbachev and Yeltsin into zombies in order to undermine the USSR. (Respublika, January 5); The CIA initiated this winter's gas crisis between Ukraine and Russia to weaken Russia. (7 Dnei, January 5); SARS, bird flu, and mad cow disease were created and are being spread by the USG to destroy European and Asian economies, which will be the pretext for U.S. invasion. (BT, January 10); The EU created the "secret CIA jails" scandal to free EU territory of U.S. spies. (Respublika, January 11); "The U.S. has become an open wound in the body of the Christian world. In that country, worshiping Satan has become an open cult." (BT, in a new series 'Spiritual War,' episode 'Empire of Satan,' February 6); The U.S. Embassy is planning to attack Belarus, with conventional and nuclear weapons. The Embassy will refer to this bloodshed as "liberation from dictatorship." (BT, February 14).

Ambassador Stewart was recalled on March 12, 2008 following a threat of expulsion by the Belarusian authorities and the voluntary recall of Belarus’ Ambassador to the U.S. Belarus then unilaterally reduced the staff at its U.S. missions, excluding the mission to the UN, to five persons and demanded the U.S. reciprocate by reducing the U.S. Embassy in Minsk from 35 to five diplomats. When the U.S. refused to comply, the Belarusian authorities expelled the U.S. diplomats and capped the presence of American diplomats, stationed or visiting for technical or administrative support, at five. American diplomats are also now required to schedule all meetings with government, state institutions, and state enterprise--approximately 80% of society works for the state--via the Foreign Ministry (MFA). The MFA also requires 24-hour pre-notification before American diplomats travel outside of a 40-kilometer ring outside Minsk. In response, the U.S. applied reciprocal policy on Belarusians working in the U.S., with the caveat that the U.S. will lift the restrictions when the Government of Belarus does the same. The United States and Belarus are currently represented at the level of Charge d’Affaires.

In September 1995, three hot air balloons participating in the Coupe Gordon Bennett race entered Belarusian air space. Race organizers had informed the Belarusian authorities about the race in May, and flight plans had been filed. Nevertheless, the Belarusian air force shot down one balloon, killing two American citizens, and forced the other two to land. The crews of the other two balloons were fined for entering Belarus without a visa and released. To date, Belarus has not apologized or offered compensation for these killings.

In November 1996, the Lukashenka regime conducted an internationally unrecognized and highly flawed constitutional referendum, which resulted in the dissolution of Belarus' legitimate parliament and the centralization of power in the executive branch through the destruction of the separation of powers. In addition, Lukashenka used his newly centralized power to repress human rights throughout the country, including persecuting members of the illegally disbanded Belarusian Parliament (13th Supreme Soviet) and former members of his own government.

As a result of these events and tendencies, the United States announced in 1997 its decision to pursue a "selective engagement" policy with the Belarusian authorities. This policy included downgrading government-to-government contacts to the level of Assistant Secretary and below, as well as restricting U.S. Government assistance to the Belarusian authorities, with some exceptions including humanitarian assistance and exchange programs with state-run educational institutions. At the same time, the U.S. greatly expanded contacts with Belarusian civil society to promote democratization in Belarus.

Since 1997, despite U.S. engagement with Belarusian society, official bilateral relations have remained at a low level. In 1998, the Belarusian authorities provoked a diplomatic crisis by demanding and, in contravention of international law, eventually confiscating diplomatic residences in the Drozdy housing compound, including the U.S. Ambassador's residence. This action led the United States and other countries to withdraw their ambassadors from Belarus until the Belarusian authorities provided compensation and guarantees of respect for international law. In 2003, the United States, in tandem with the European Union, proposed a step-by-step, gradual approach to improve bilateral relations: the United States would respond positively to genuine efforts by Belarusian authorities to improve Belarus' human rights and electoral practices. Belarusian authorities failed to take the steps that warranted a positive response.

In October 2004, the U.S. Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Belarus Democracy Act, which was designed to promote democratization. In signing the act, President Bush noted that the authorities were turning Belarus into "a regime of repression in the heart of Europe," and set out the U.S. policy of working "with our allies and partners to assist those seeking to return Belarus to its rightful place among the Euro-Atlantic community of democracies." After a deeply flawed presidential election in March 2006, the U.S., acting with the EU, imposed travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions against Belarusian officials implicated in human rights abuses and election fraud. The financial sanctions prohibited U.S. persons from engaging in financial transactions with named persons. On January 12, 2007, President Bush signed the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act, which repeated the call for targeted sanctions against Belarusian officials and continued assistance for democracy building activities.

In August 2007, the U.S. widened application of travel restrictions on Belarusians to include directors and deputy directors of state enterprises. In November 2007, the Treasury Department froze the U.S. assets of the Belarusian state oil and petrochemicals company, Belneftekhim, because of Lukashenka's control of the company. After the Belarusian authorities released the last of its political prisoners in August 2008, the U.S. suspended sanctions for 6 months on two Belneftekhim subsidiaries, Lakokraska and Polotsk Steklovolokno, while keeping sanctions in place against Belneftekhim as a whole.

In August 2009, Assistant Secretary of State Philip H. Gordon traveled to Belarus for meetings with government officials on improving bilateral relations on the basis of improved respect for human rights and democratic principles in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities failed to take any steps in this direction; moreover, following the December 2010 elections, they launched an unprecedented crackdown that represented a serious step backward in democratic development.

In response to the December 2010 crackdown, the United States in January 2011 announced additional travel restrictions and the re-imposition of sanctions suspended in 2008 against two Belneftekhim subsidiaries. On the same day, the EU announced its own sanctions regime of travel bans and asset freezes. In August 2011, the United States imposed additional sanctions against four major Belarusian state-owned enterprises that were determined to be owned or controlled by Belneftekhim.

On January 3, 2012, President Barack Obama signed into law the Belarus Democracy and Human Rights Act of 2011, which strengthened and expanded the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 and the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006. The law affirms U.S. Belarus policy as calling for new presidential and parliamentary elections that comply with OSCE standards and for the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners; includes an expansion of the criteria for Belarusian officials subject to visa restrictions and financial sanctions to those involved in post-election crackdowns; and calls on the International Ice Hockey Federation to suspend plans to hold the 2014 International World Ice Hockey championship in Minsk.

The majority of U.S. Government assistance programs in Belarus aim to create space for the free expression of political views, advance human rights, support civil society development, and promote media freedom. Other programs strengthen entrepreneurs and business associations, support access to independent higher education, improve living standards through health projects and those addressing vulnerable populations, and combat trafficking in persons. With very limited exceptions, including humanitarian assistance and exchange programs involving state-run educational institutions, U.S. assistance is not channeled through the Government of Belarus.

In 2011, the U.S. provided $18 million in assistance to Belarusian civil society, including $4 million committed at an international donor conference in Warsaw. U.S. Government assistance to Belarus peaked in 1994 at approximately $76 million (consisting of more than $16 million in FREEDOM Support Act funds and some $60 million in funds from various U.S. Government agencies). However, U.S. assistance levels dropped sharply due to the lack of progress in democratic and economic reforms after Lukashenka came to power in mid-1994.

Belarus was previously a recipient of assistance under the U.S. Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, whose objective is to reduce the threat posed to the United States by weapons of mass destruction remaining on the territory of the former Soviet Union by promoting denuclearization and demilitarization and preventing weapons proliferation. However, in February 1997, due to the Belarusian authorities’ poor record on human rights, President Clinton de-certified Belarus, thus rendering the country ineligible for further CTR assistance and placing restrictions on other security-related assistance as well. The United States and Belarus signed a government-to-government umbrella agreement on CTR assistance in 1992, seven agency-to-agency CTR implementing agreements, and one memorandum of understanding and cooperation. The umbrella agreement was extended for 1 year in October 1997 but has now expired.

There have been numerous reports of Belarusian sales or delivery of weapons or weapons-related technologies to states of concern, including state sponsors of terrorism. In April and September 2004, the United States imposed sanctions for a period of 2 years on a Belarusian entity, Belvneshpromservice, pursuant to the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 for the transfer to Iran of items on a multilateral export control list, or items having the potential of making a material contribution to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or cruise or ballistic missile systems. The sanctions against Belvneshpromservice expired in April 2006. In December 2011, the U.S. Government re-imposed sanctions on Belvneshpromservice as it had re-engaged in transfer activities in violation of the Iran Nonproliferation Act.

In March 2011, the United States sanctioned Belarusneft, a state-owned Belarusian energy company, for its involvement in the Iranian petroleum sector, which--as UN Security Council Resolution 1929 recognized--Iran uses to fund its proliferation activities, as well as to mask procurement for the importation of dual-use items.

In May 2011, the United States imposed sanctions for a period of 2 years on a Belarusian entity, BelTechExport, pursuant to the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA). Sanctions were imposed on BelTechExport because there was credible information indicating that it had transferred to Iran, North Korea, or Syria equipment and technology listed on multilateral export control lists or otherwise having the potential to make a material contribution to weapons of mass destruction, or cruise or ballistic missile systems.

The United States and Belarus planned to exchange ambassadors after an 11-year freeze. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with President Alexander Lukashenko on 17 Seotember 2019 in the Belarusian capital Minsk as the two sides look to patch up relations. "Our meeting today marks an historic juncture in US–Belarus relations," the United States' number three diplomat said. "It is my honor to announce that we are prepared to exchange ambassadors as the next step in normalizing our relationship."

The United States recalled its ambassador to Minsk in 2008 after the former Soviet state ordered a reduction of diplomatic staff at the US Embassy in response to sanctions leveled by Washington against Belarus over its human rights record. Since then, both countries' embassies have been led by chargés d'affaires.

Hale said the United States was not asking Belarus "to choose between East and West" and respected the country's desire to "chart its own course." The US-Belarus rapprochement came as Russia has increased pressure on Lukashenko to deepen ties between Minsk and Moscow.

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Page last modified: 27-11-2019 18:53:40 ZULU