The legislation authorizes U.S. government agencies to assist Belarusian political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and independent media. U.S. agencies already can do that, however. Under the U.S. system, legislation carries little weight on its own until an appropriations bill provides money to implement it.
It's the sanctions portion of the act that has drawn protests from Minsk.
Belarus responded today by saying the United States is heading toward a Cold War-style confrontation. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said: "This openly hostile act leaves us with nothing but great sorrow.... Now, the United States will be solely responsible for repairing relations with Belarus."
It added that Washington is not respectful of the efforts by Belarus to build a sovereign state independent of foreign influence.
On still another level, Bush's signing of the Belarus Democracy Act -- which was passed by the U.S. Congress earlier in October -- amounts to a significant act of symbolism. Opposition figures in Belarus greeted the news with enthusiasm.
Oleg Manaev is director of the Independent Institute of Social, Economic, and Political Studies in Minsk. He told RFE/RL today that the U.S. action sends two important signals: "It is a very clear signal to the Belarusian authorities that their anti-democratic policy will not be accepted by the international community, by the United States."
The second signal, he said, is even stronger: "And the second signal on my mind is addressed to the people of Belarus, that those who support ideas of democracy and those who do disagree with the current policies introduced by Lukashenka and his government, they are not alone. They are not in minority. They are not forgotten in the international arena. And the United States shows them, this part of Belarusian society, at least half of the nation, that they will get some support -- moral, political, ethical."
Manaev's mention of "at least half of the nation" is in evident reference to an exit poll conducted on 17 October in Belarus by the independent Gallup Institute. That poll contradicted claims by electoral authorities that 77 percent of referendum voters endorsed dropping the constitutional provision limiting the president to two terms. Gallup concluded that the measure won only 48 percent of the vote -- and thus would have failed.
Irina Krasovskaya, wife of Belarusian opposition figure Anatol Krasovsky, also celebrates the act as a symbolic defeat for Lukashenka. Krasovsky is one of numerous political and media figures who have disappeared in Belarus in recent years. AFP news agency quoted her today as saying, "This is a serious sign for Lukashenka. I doubt he sleeps well tonight."
The Belarus Democracy Act also provides for radio and television broadcasts to Belarus that are geared to furthering democracy. U.S.-funded RFE/RL currently broadcasts eight hours a day to Belarus.
International organizations that monitored the Belarus voting almost universally concluded that it was undemocratic and open to fraud and that it was preceded and followed by repressive measures. Bush's statement yesterday said the elections were "conducted in a climate of abuse and fear."
Lukashenka has not commented on the Belarus Democracy Act specifically. But he used terse language when he told the United States to tend to U.S. affairs and to leave Belarusian affairs to Belarus.
Parliament member and Lukashenka supporter Nikolai Cherginets condemned the Belarus Democracy Act as infringing on Belarusian sovereignty.