Belarus – USA: Stepping Off the Freezing Point?

Andrei Fyodarau

Summary

Belarusian-American relations remained quite strained almost throughout the entire year 2012 due to the events in Belarus during and after the presidential election. No progress was observed and, moreover, sometimes it looked like both states approached the line when diplomatic relations could be severed. Nevertheless, there were a series of official talks at the turn of the year that suggested a certain improvement of the situation.

Trends:
Continuous confrontation

Although 2012 was the year of jubilee – 20 years since establishment of diplomatic relations between Belarus and the United States in January – no celebrations were held, as, in fact, there was nothing to celebrate. Moreover, increasing tension was felt over the most part of the year.

On January 4, U.S. President Barack Obama extended the Belarus Democracy Act signed into law in 2011 with a new package of sanctions and a longer list of Belarusian officials, security officers and law enforcers subject to visa and financial restrictions. The Act also addressed the International Ice Hockey Federation asking to strip Belarus of the right to host the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship.

On May 22, the U.S. Department of Treasury identified Belarusian JSC Credexbank as an institution of “primary money laundering concern.” This was done to protect the U. S. financial system from risk stemming from the Belarusian bank. David Cohen, Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, explained that “this action sought to protect the U.S. financial system from a foreign financial institution whose highly suspicious transaction patterns and pervasive lack of transparency made it virtually impossible to discern whether the bank was engaged in any legitimate business.”

In mid-June, Obama released the statement for the Federal Register, in which he informed that assets of some “individuals who undermine democratic processes and democratic institutions of Belarus” would be frozen for one more year.

On September 19, the Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on one more Belarusian state-owned company, Belvneshpromservice, which means that it could not cooperate with American governmental or private institutions and its accounts in U.S. banks, if any, were to be frozen. The company was accused of supplying goods for the Syrian armed forces. Specifically, in March 2011, Syria’s Army Supply Bureau allegedly received fuses for general purpose aerial bombs, which Bashar al-Assad could use against his people.

America once again dismissed the September parliamentary elections in Belarus as non-complying with international standards. Finally, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about ongoing human rights abuses in Belarus at a the session of the OSCE Council of Ministers for Foreign Affairs on December 6 in Dublin.

The Department of State also made a number of statements. In particular, it was said that Belarus did not fully comply with the minimum standards for elimination of human trafficking (it is worthy of note that this point had not given rise to criticism from the United States before). The Department of State condemned the expulsion of the Polish ambassador and head of the European Union Delegation from Belarus that entailed the recall of all EU ambassadors from the Belarusian capital, and then the diplomatic conflict with Sweden that followed the “teddy bear bombing.”

American parliamentarians were very active as usual. In the speech made on May 2 at the Vilnius University, former presidential candidate Senator John McCain scarified the Belarusian leadership and called on to intensify pressure on the regime. Congressman Christopher Smith seconded his colleague.

United States’ representatives in the OSCE standing committee in Vienna and the embassy in Minsk constantly monitored and criticized actions of the Belarusian government. A positive response was only given twice – both times when political prisoners were released – and even then a negative connotation was carried by the demand to release other prisoners immediately and unconditionally and rehabilitate them completely.

The Belarusian authorities returned like for like. When in Havana in June, Alexander Lukashenko called the American blockade against Cuba “outrageous” and said that “Belarus resolutely demanded to call it off immediately.”

The Belarusian president addressed students of the Belarusian State Economic University with a speech a week after the election in the United States. He doubted that something would change in relations with the U.S. “It is the country of huge inertia. They plow ahead like a bulldozer across the world… And all this eloquence you hear today – don’t trust it. Not always they do what they promised to do when elections are over.” Considering that it was said together with the claim that two dozens of contestants for the U.S. presidency were jailed, the declaration of the willingness to cooperate with the Americans seemed to be nothing but a usual attempt to put a brave face on a sorry business.

As a result, it caused no surprise that the Belarusian leader was not among the heads of state who congratulated Barack Obama on his re-election. Nor was Obama on the list of those who Minsk wished a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Given the whole atmosphere, it would be strange if other government institutions acted differently. In the film titled “Big Brother” shown on Belarusian TV in February, the Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the American embassy of breaking Belarusian laws and the Vienna Declaration by forming “mobile night patrols” of Belarusian nationals to secure the embassy.

The Foreign Ministry called the Department of State’s regular report on human rights in Belarus in 2011 “manipulations with the human rights topic.” The Ministry also repeatedly accused the United States of breaching the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which provided Belarus with security guarantees in exchange for joining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Unexpected cloud gap?

Phillip Gordon, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, said in mid-January, “We see no future in relations with Belarus.” Belief was growing stronger for the most part of the year that this judgment was really final. From time to time, it even looked as if diplomatic relations were about to be severed and new Charge d’Affaires ad interim Ethan Goldrich, who arrived in Minsk in July, should not have unpacked his things as he was likely to go back pretty soon.

However, in autumn, against the background of the ongoing public swordplay, the media informed of certain diplomatic contacts. Goldrich met with newly appointed Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei in September and his assistant Alexander Guryanov in October. The MFA also informed that a delegation of Belarusian businessmen visited the world's largest World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin. Not a big deal, one would say, but nothing like that had been on the news for many years.

Finally, Lukashenko’s assistant Valentin Rybakov held negotiations with Daniel Russell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, on November 15 in Washington during which “the parties discussed matters of mutual interest.”

These messages can be regarded as unexpected because nothing suggested that something like that could happen, actually. Any assumptions that the Belarusian leadership suddenly reconsidered their policy cannot be taken seriously.

Stronger pressure on the part of Russia (especially when it comes to economy) could be a credible explanation of this pivotal change in viewpoints, perhaps the only one. Certain underlying conflicts between the Union State partners were the most probable reason.

Also, it could be an attempt of the Belarusian government to reestablish cooperation with the International Monetary Fund given that Belarus was supposed topay back the USD 3.1 billion loan next year. The United States is one of the major shareholders in the Fund and commands quite a number of votes there. The American executive director follows instructions from the Department of State and the Treasury. The Belarus Democracy Act prescribes him to argue against any financial aid (except humanitarian) to the government of Belarus in all international institutions.

Clear light was not shed upon the situation till the end of the year.

Antagonistic controversies

Judging by outer indicators only, the basic Belarusian-American contradictions resulted from imprisonment of Belarusians on political grounds, which official Minsk does not however admit, and the political and economic sanctions imposed by the United States as a consequence. Both thus voiced absolute confidence that the ball was on the other side of the court and neither of them was willing to meet the other halfway.

The real reason however lies much deeper. It is obvious now that the incumbent authorities of Belarus and the United States hold absolutely different views on the fundamentals of social structure, which can be only pulled together by some extraordinary external circumstances. Since there are no visible preconditions for such circumstances, any tangible changes are highly unlikely.

The situation with the Budapest Memorandum can be taken as an example. As mentioned above, the Belarusian leadership constantly refers to one of its provisions, specifically America’s obligation “to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to its own interest the exercise by Belarus of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”

As a matter of fact, the restrictions imposed by Washington on some economic entities of Belarus, can be regarded as a kind of “economic coercion.” At the same time, it is unclear what exactly the U.S. Administration is trying to achieve “to its own interest” and what “advantages” to secure in the opinion of the Belarusian government.

The advantages Washington can allegedly have are not perceptible so far. America’s willingness to fund the exchange of Belarusian highly enriched uranium for low enriched material displays motivation of the United States to resolve this problem. Belarus however suspended this process, so the objective has not been achieved.

In general, it makes no sense to speak about any achievements. The U.S. does not like the Belarusian incumbent administration very much, but, judging by the experience of many previous years, it is unable to exert profound influence on the regime even when backed by united Europe.

Many accuse the United States of using objectionable methods. There are advocates and critics (including among American analysts) of the tactics of limited political and economic pressure.

During the so-called “Snow Meeting” in Trakai in January 2012, Jamestown Foundation expertVladimir Socor said the Belarus Democracy Act meant nothing. In his opinion, all sorts of sanctions against Belarus will never work, but only isolate the country, which therefore falls into the Kremlin’s hands. The only thing that the West can do to prevent the surrender of Belarus to the Russians is to help to reinforce its statehood. Also, it is necessary to get through to the Belarusian ruling elite preparing them for the post-Lukashenko period.

On the contrary, Freedom House President David Kramer, former Assistant Secretary of State, insists that the European Union and the United States should stick to a hard line in relation to Belarus and increase pressure, because it is “the only language Lukashenko understands.”

Apparently, it is hardly possible to arrive at a decisive conclusion concerning the effectiveness of sanctions: they actually failed in North Korea, while some positive results were achieved in Myanmar in 2012 where sanctions against a number of ranking officials imposed for human rights abuses were lifted after all. It is evident that there are certain specifics in each particular case, which determine the outcome eventually.

Conclusion

Considering the above, the course of events unfortunately looks quite logical and it is safe to assume that appreciable rapprochement of the positions expressed by the two countries will not happenany time soon. Anyway, the forthcoming appointment of a new secretary of state will hardly lead to reshaping of the policy towards Belarus. In turn, the Belarusian regime shows no willingness to resume cooperation by fulfilling conditions stipulated by Washington, the release of political prisoners being thekey one.

Nevertheless, the current standing reminds of the situation of August 2008 when such gesture resulted in a considerable strengthening of the western vector. By the way, Deputy Assistant Secretary of StateDavid Merkel was the first to visit Belarus at that time…

It would be therefore wrong to flatly rule out the possibility of the same scenario, as the authorities of Belarus can play this card once again. Although the Americans certainly have not forgotten the sad ending of that story, some cautious steps forward still can be made.

Information from BelTA, BelaPAN, and Interfax news agencies was used in this article.