US suspends economic sanctions against Belarus


Associated Press Writer

(AP:MINSK, Belarus) The U.S. administration has suspended some economic sanctions against this former Soviet nation, the U.S. Embassy said Friday.

The Embassy spokesman said the U.S. Treasury Department has suspended its ban on U.S. companies dealing with two Belarusian companies, Lakokraska and Polotsk Steklovolokno. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with official policy.

The move follows the release last month of several opposition activists by Belarusian authorities.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov hailed the U.S. decision as a "step in the right direction."

"This move by the U.S. administration is also in the interests of the U.S. business community," Popov said in a statement.

Other U.S. sanctions against the government of Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko remain, including those imposed against a major state-controlled oil and chemical company, Belneftekhim.

The United States is one of the fiercest critics of Lukashenko, and relations have been on a downward spiral since the U.S. imposed sanctions on Belneftekhim last fall.

The U.S. ambassador left in March after Belarus pulled its ambassador from Washington. Most employees of the U.S. Embassy have been expelled in recent months.

The United States and the European Union also have imposed travel sanctions on Lukashenko and his officials. They urged Lukashenko's government to release all political prisoners and end its crackdown on dissent as a condition for improving ties.

Lukashenko, called "Europe's last dictator" in the West, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for more than 14 years, quashing dissent and opposition parties and shutting down independent news media.

Lukashenko's isolation deepened this year, amid a bitter dispute with his nation's main sponsor and ally, Russia, which has sharply increased energy prices for Belarus.

The growing estrangement with Russia apparently has prompted Lukashenko to try to improve Belarus' ties with the West. The flamboyant Belarusian leader has softened his anti-Western rhetoric considerably and Belarusian authorities last month freed the last remaining political prisoners whose release the West had demanded.

Belarus' first post-Soviet leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, who now is an opposition politician, said Lukashenko's lukewarm support for Russia's war in Georgia and his decision to release political prisoners was a "clearly signaled his desire to normalize ties with the U.S. and the EU."

"Lukashenko has been playing a game trying to gain weight in Russia's eyes and blackmail it by showing that he may turn to the West any moment," Shushkevich told the AP.

Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Moscow.



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