Back again in Minsk since September 2006, she talks to RFE/RL's Belarus Service about Belarus's political prisoners and the country's chance to embrace economic reform.
RFE/RL: The U.S. government has numerous times called on the Belarusian authorities to release prisoners of conscience. Have you met with any prisoners of conscience in Belarus or their families? If so, what impression did these meetings leave you with?
Karen Stewart: You've touched on one of the issues that are most important for my embassy and for my government -- seeking the release of political prisoners. By our count, we're up to 11 Belarusians who are in prison or otherwise detained on politically motivated charges. I have met a couple of these gentleman and have met several who were previously in prison and are now released and I've had a couple of occasions to meet with the families, to bring the families together, including a Christmas party last December. All of us at the embassy are so impressed by the courage of the political prisoners and by the courage of their families who have to wait and watch and suffer for these years, waiting to be reunited with their loved ones.
RFE/RL: Summing up U.S.-Belarusian relations in 2006, you noted that, on an official level, there was very little positive to report. But if one were to speak about nonofficial contacts, contacts between individuals, NGOs, etc., is there any reason to be more optimistic?
Stewart: Yes, I am more optimistic about the personal contacts. I think they are really the basis for the long-term development of relations between our countries. The embassy encourages contacts between individuals and between organizations as much as we can through our exchange programs, through our cultural events, through our support for nongovernmental organizations. But there are also a number of private American organizations who are active in Belarus in humanitarian assistance with Chornobyl children or even just privately visiting and that's also a wonderful way to build up understanding between our two peoples.
RFE/RL: You've articulated the U.S. position regarding the crisis that erupted between Belarus and Russia over gas prices by saying that: countries should not use their energy resources as political weapons in international relations. It's clear that there will be negative consequences for Belarus as a result of the increase in energy costs. What positive effects might ensue from Belarus having to contend with higher gas and oil prices?
Stewart: You've accurately noted that the U.S. government is opposed to using energy as a political lever against other countries. But economically the best result is when countries are buying and selling resources at world prices as long as the adjustment to those world prices was phased in over time. The advantages to Belarus of being on the open market for energy prices are increased efficiency, it will be an incentive to conserve energy, [and] it will be an incentive to diversify sources of energy. Also, as industries in Belarus have to operate without subsidies, Belarus can see which industries have the most competitive advantages, where investment should be, and I hope that would also lead to the government adopting policies that would make Belarus more attractive for foreign investors.
RFE/RL: The mandate of the Belarus Democracy Act was recently extended. What will this mean for the democratic community of Belarus as a result of this? [The Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 is designed to promote democratic development, human rights, and the rule of law in Belarus, as well as encourage the consolidation and strengthening of Belarus's sovereignty and independence.]
Stewart: American legislation can be very confusing. The Belarus Democracy Act does not actually appropriate additional resources for assistance. But it does tell us where [the U.S.] Congress thinks it's important to use our assistance. And so the executive branch of the U.S. government, as we decide where to allocate assistance on a very tight budget year, we know that Congress thinks it's very important to continue to support democratic development in Belarus and that has meant that we have maintained the same level of assistance when other countries were being cut. So the act tells us it's important to continue assistance to political party development, to civil society, and independent media.