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Belarus, Once Again, Cracks Down on Dissent

Belarus, Once Again, Cracks Down on Dissent

At the 11th hour, the United States renewed sanctions relief for Belarus, even as the country shows little sign of continuing its tepid shift toward the West.

Waivers to U.S. economic sanctions for nine Belarusian companies were extended on Friday. The waivers, first put in place in 2015 under President Barack Obama, were meant to nudge the so-called last dictatorship of Europe closer to the West — and some saw signs it was doing just that.

In the past year, Belarus opened visa-free travel up to a wide variety of countries, including the United States, and Aleksander Lukashenko, the iron-fisted leader of Belarus, openly criticized Russia for trying to exact too much control. Several political prisoners were even freed.

And so the waivers to the sanctions were extended twice last year. Set to expire last Sunday, the waivers were renewed at almost the last minute for another six months. That means nine major Belarusian companies can continue to do business with their American counterparts.

But if ever Washington were going to get tougher on Minsk and let the sanctions stand, it seemed like it might be now. In late March, Belarus cracked down hard on protests, eventually arresting 400 people, including journalists. (The protests were sparked by outrage at the government’s tax on “parasites,” a $250 fine levied against those who hadn’t worked in six months. Lukashenko agreed to postpone the implementation of the tax, but the protesters persisted all the same.)

But even that crackdown wasn’t enough to get Belarus in the doghouse. As Reuters reported, “A U.S. official said earlier this month that the Trump administration was inclined to renew the sanctions relief at the end of April if Belarus authorities did not ‘do anything awful.’”

Another large protest was planned for Monday — May 1, or Labor Day in Belarus (and much of the world). On Saturday, two days ahead of the protest, Nikolai Statkevich, a leading opposition figure who ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 presidential elections (after which he spent five years in prison), was arrested and will be held for five days, his wife said on Sunday.

On Monday, police threatened use of physical force. But the day wasn’t marked by the mass arrests of the protest in March — activists and journalists had already been detained ahead of time.

Even though the government’s behavior wasn’t enough to get U.S. sanctions reinstated, it throws cold water on the notion of a closer rapprochement between Belarus and the West.

“It’s a shame, because the release of political prisoners and some promising reforms had enabled a period of relative warming in Belarus-West relations in the last several years,” said Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center.

“I would expect Western governments to take the arrests of protesters into account in assessing whether improved relations can be sustained,” he said.

Lukashenko is already sharpening his rhetorical claws, finding in his annual “message to the people and the National Assembly” late last month a fresh target for criticism. In contrast to a few months earlier, when he singled out Russia, this time he took aim squarely at Brussels for criticizing — or, to use his parlance, “pouring dirt on” — his regime.

“We are not idiots; we see what is happening inside the EU itself,” Lukashenko said, later adding, “I want to tell all the European leaders: You really lack something between the legs…. You will soon realize your mistakes and will regret having made them. Why are you so stubborn? Where’s your democracy and tolerance?”

In the meantime, for another six months, Belarus will avoid U.S. economic sanctions. And unless Lukashenko does something “awful,” wherever that threshold may lie, Minsk can probably bank on getting more relief later this year.

“Given Belarus is the last country in the Eastern Partnership with territorial integrity,” Balazs Jarabik of Carnegie Europe said, “the actual Western objective is boiling down to keep/support Belarus’s independence, and that requires engagement with the Lukashenko regime.”

Photo credit: SERGEI GAPON/AFP/Getty Images