Free and Fair Elections in Belarus Could Improve U.S. Relations

By Stephen Kaufman

The United States is paying close attention to parliamentary elections in Belarus, scheduled for September 28, in hopes that a free and fair vote can build on a positive momentum in bilateral relations that began with the release of political prisoners in August.

State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood told reporters September 25 that the election will be "an important test," and "how those elections turn out will determine how we go forward in terms of next steps in the US.-Belarusian bilateral relationship."

The United States responded to the August 18 release of Belarus' remaining political prisoners by sending Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs David Merkel to Minsk for talks with officials in President Aleksandr Lukashenko's administration and members of his political opposition. (See "Belarus' Release of Political Prisoners Welcomed ( ).")

Merkel told September 24 that his visit aimed to show a positive U.S. response to the prisoner release. The visit coincided with the suspension of some economic sanctions that had been placed against the Lukashenko regime. But Merkel said he also wanted to underscore to government and opposition members alike the importance of the parliamentary vote.

"[E]veryone recognizes this as a significant progress - one that we want to be responsive of to encourage additional steps by the government in Belarus," he said. "I wanted to point out to the opposition and to the government, the election commission, the attention that we're placing on this election. I wanted to understand what steps are being taken so that the election could be an improvement over previous elections."


Merkel said he raised areas of U.S. and international concern over aspects of the coming vote in what he described as "a very good concrete discussion."

The international community has been allowed to see the makeup of the Belarusian election commissions and the list of registered candidates, Merkel said, adding it is important that the government has doubled the amount of television exposure for candidates, as well as provided them with radio and newspaper access. Candidates also should be able to meet directly with the voters, including at organized public rallies, he said.

Merkel said it is also very important that international monitors be granted sufficient access.

"Access is not simply allowing an international observer into the room. But access is providing them the opportunity to observe the voting, observe the counting and have access to the different protocol of the voting stations after the count," he said.

As the government takes positive steps for its citizens, Belarus stands to benefit, and the United States is looking for an improved bilateral relationship.

"We'd like to see the opportunity for there to be more economic and diplomatic activity happening between the U.S. and Belarus, [and] between Europe and Belarus, and we think that if Belarus takes additional steps in the next elections and others, then there is a possibility for that."

Merkel said he raised the issue of Emanuel Zeltser, a U.S. citizen currently in a Belarusian prison and believed to be in poor health. "[H]is treatment and regular visitation is something that is of great importance to us and something that we've been very clear with those in Belarus about."

Asked about the possibility that the United States will return its ambassador to Minsk, Merkel said the U.S. Embassy first must be allowed to return to normal staffing. The Belarusian government forced the reduction of the U.S. mission from more than 30 staff members in March to the five diplomats who now run the embassy.

If the United States is permitted to increase its staff to a level it deems sufficient, "it's at that point that we would consider sending an ambassador back," he said.


The possibility for improved relations comes at a time when the United States and many European countries have expressed concerns over Belarus' neighbor, Russia, particularly in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia.

Merkel said Belarus, as well as other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), comprising most of the former Soviet Union republics, may be torn between feeling pressure to obey Russia's wishes and seeking greater interaction with Europe and the United States. It is apparent, he said, that Moscow may not always treat those nations as "sovereign countries and good neighbors."

He said Belarus and other CIS countries have not echoed Russia's rhetoric against Georgia and have not followed Russia in recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries in the aftermath of the military invasion of Georgia.

Most likely, Belarus and its neighbors in the CIS "have looked at Russia's actions the way the entire international community has looked at Russia's actions, and that's with alarm," he said.

Source: U.S. Department of State



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