Since Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka came to power in 1994, he has consolidated power through widespread repression. In 1996, Lukashenka reacted to western criticism of a referendum that dissolved Parliament and expanded the authority of the presidency by temporarily expelling the U.S. and EU Ambassadors. After a presidential election in 2006 that violated international norms and was neither free nor fair, the United States implemented travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions on nine state-owned entities and 16 individuals (including Lukashenka). In 2008, after the United States tightened sanctions due to worsening human rights abuses, Belarus expelled the U.S. ambassador – a position that has remained vacant – and 30 out of 35 U.S. diplomats. Over this period, Belarus became almost wholly dependent upon Russia – politically, economically, and militarily. In August 2015, Lukashenka released all six of Belarus’ political prisoners. In response, the United States provided limited sanctions relief, suspending sanctions on the state-owned entities. Since sanctions relief began, Belarus has taken some steps to improve democracy and human rights. Increased bilateral engagement depends on Belarus making additional progress on human rights and democracy issues.
Today, the State Department’s Under Secretary For Political Affairs (P) David Hale who is in Belarus announced a “joint efforts to move our bilateral relationship forward” and the “exchange ambassadors” as the next step in normalizing the relationship.
I am pleased to stand here today with Foreign Minister Makei to recognize our joint efforts to move our bilateral relationship forward. Our meeting today marks an historic juncture in U.S. – Belarus relations. It is my honor to announce that we are prepared to exchange ambassadors as the next step in normalizing our relationship.
The United States remains committed to a sovereign, independent Belarus with a prosperous future for the next generation. The United States also welcomes Belarus’ increased cooperation on issues of non-proliferation, border security, economic cooperation, and information sharing on matters of shared security.
I would like to reiterate that by normalizing our relationship, we are not asking Belarus to choose between East and West. The United States respects Belarus’ desire to chart its own course and to contribute to peace and stability in the region.
There are still aspects of the Belarus Democracy Act with which the Belarusian government needs to contend, and the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections represent an opportunity to address the spirit of the concerns outlined in the Belarus Democracy Act. With such progress, we can discuss further easing of sanctions.
Belarus is a country with a rich culture and vibrant, talented people. We look forward to increased cooperation and dialogue between our countries. Thank you.