American foreign policy since 11 September has largely focused on one thing: the war on terrorism. But there's a movement afoot in the U.S. Senate that would shift at least some attention to Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka. As RFE/RL correspondent Jeffrey Donovan reports, the proposed legislation would seek to isolate the Minsk government while aiding its democratic opposition.
Washington, 11 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three months ago yesterday, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka celebrated what he called a "shining" landslide win in the ex-Soviet republic's second presidential election since independence in 1991.
Now, a veteran American politician is working on legislation he hopes will eventually be a shining victory over Lukashenka.
Senator Jesse Helms, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its former chairman, has submitted a bill proposing a tough mix of isolation of the Minsk government and robust economic assistance to its democratic opposition in a bid to bring down Lukashenka.
The "Belarus Democracy Act 2001" is unlikely to be enacted into legislation this year. The bill is still seeking sponsorship in the House of Representatives -- the other half of Congress.
But an aide to Helms, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said the senator would push the bill once Congress kicks off its 2002 session in January. The aide also said some House members have expressed interest in sponsoring a version of the bill and that he was confident the legislation could eventually be passed next year.
In the past, Helms co-sponsored legislation that imposed economic sanctions on Fidel Castro's Cuba.
His latest bill, if approved, would allocate $30 million in aid to Minsk's opposition -- or about three times what its supporters currently receive from Washington. Besides political parties, the money would go to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the independent media, and international exchanges and professional training programs -- all in a bid to build democracy.
Perhaps most significantly, the bill would impose on Minsk a series of sanctions that would contradict explicit recent recommendations by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) not to isolate the country -- despite what the OSCE dubbed neither free nor fair elections in September.
Although the U.S. has maintained a critical position toward Lukashenka, the bill would significantly harden its policy known as "selective engagement," which allows for only limited and generally low-level contact between the two governments.
Still, a State Department official told RFE/RL that the department does not disagree with the substance of the proposed legislation. The official added that Minsk has been one of the few governments in the world not to offer any support to the U.S. following the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Under the bill, the U.S. government would oppose any financial assistance to Belarus from the main international financial institutions; freeze any assets held by the government or senior leaders of Belarus in the United States; prohibit exports of any goods from the U.S. to entities controlled by the Belarus government; and forbid any contracts between Americans and Belarusian government-owned entities.
The sanctions would only be lifted once Minsk released political prisoners from jail, such as businessman Andrei Klimov; stopped harassing opposition media, NGOs, and politicians; and provided a full and complete accounting of the four opposition figures who have disappeared in recent years.
The bill would also deny entry into the U.S. of anyone in a senior post in the Belarusian government or an immediate relation of such a person.
And it calls on Russia to cease support of the Lukashenka government and respect Minsk's sovereignty, and urges the U.S. to seek the backing of European allies to apply similar sanctions against Belarus.
Catherine Fitzpatrick is the executive director of the International League for Human Rights, which has consultative status with the United Nations and works closely on Belarus. Fitzapatrick said the bill may be too harsh in some sanctions, and that it could be diplomatically counterproductive as some could wonder why the U.S. is working with other authoritarian regimes, such as Uzbekistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, yet singling out Minsk.
But generally, Fitzpatrick supports the bill and believes the U.S. must take a harder stance on Lukashenka and urge the European Union to do so as well: "I would like to see it go, but I think that given everybody else's concern about everything from Afghanistan reconstruction to Pakistan to Somalia to North Korea -- this is not on the top of the list. But it is something we support and should be supported."
The OSCE has said isolation would harm the Belarusian people, but Fitzpatrick said the OSCE should stop consulting with Minsk -- something it has never tried as a policy since Lukashenka took over in 1994. She said Minsk should be treated in the same way the West treated the Soviet Union -- with firm, consistent condemnation.
Fitzpatrick added that while she was uncertain about the bill's potential to be approved, she has noticed that a lot people in the Belarusian government are starting to worry that it might be.