WASHINGTON -- The conduct of Belarus' parliamentary elections next month will help determine whether the United States lifts economic sanctions against the former Soviet republic, the State Department has said.
U.S. diplomatic ties with Belarus almost completely collapsed this year in a dispute over Belarus's human rights record and U.S. sanctions. Belarus asked the U.S. ambassador to leave in March after saying Washington had toughened sanctions against its oil producer, Belneftekim.
But after Belarus released the last of what the West calls political prisoners, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Merkel visited Minsk in August and told officials bilateral relations could improve, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
"Positive steps on the part of Belarus could lead to a significant improvement of relations between the United States and Belarus, including the removal of visa and economic sanctions," Wood told reporters.
"Deputy Assistant Secretary Merkel made clear that the conduct of parliamentary elections on September 28 will be important in this regard," he said.
During the talks, Merkel also expressed U.S. interest in returning its Minsk embassy to normal staffing, Wood said. Earlier this year, Belarus twice demanded cuts in the size of the U.S. Embassy staff, now numbering only five diplomats.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka, in power since 1994, has long been accused of jailing opponents, muzzling the media, and breaking up demonstrations. He has been barred from both the United States and the 27-nation European Union on allegations that he rigged his 2006 re-election.
But since quarreling with Russia last year over energy prices, Lukashenka has sought better relations with the West. His government has released several detainees including prominent academic Alyaksandr Kazulin, who had been jailed for 5 1/2 years for helping stage mass protests against the president's re-election.
Asked if better U.S. ties with Minsk were conditional on its not recognizing two breakaway regions of Georgia, Wood said he did not want to speculate. But he added, "I don't think we would take a positive view of it."
Russia drew condemnation in the West this week when it recognized the two separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, after its troops fought back Georgian forces trying to retake South Ossetia.
Merkel, during his August 21-23 visit to Minsk, met Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov and other officials as well as opposition leaders including Kazulin, Wood said. He also met representatives of the central election commission.
Merkel pressed for "acceptable" treatment of Emanuel Zeltser, a Soviet-born U.S. citizen who was jailed for three years in Belarus this month on charges of industrial espionage. Zeltser, whose lawyer says he has a back ailment, should be given full access to proper medications, Wood said.