MINSK -- Washington has dangled a carrot in front of the Belarusian authorities by dropping sanctions against two firms just ahead of the country's September 28 parliamentary elections.
The move to drop the sanctions for six months appears to be a reward for Minsk's release of a prominent political prisoner last month, but stops short of giving one of the country's largest exporters a clean slate or dropping visa restrictions.
The sanctions imposed in May against two companies belonging to one of Belarus's largest exporting concerns have been dropped for now, but Washington will be looking for further political reforms from Minsk before taking additional steps.
The two joint-stock companies -- Lakokraska, a paint and varnish manufacturer, and Polotsk Steklovolokno, a fiberglass maker -- belong to Belarus's massive oil-products firm Belneftekhim, which brings in approximately one-third of the country's foreign-currency earnings. Sanctions remain on a number of Belneftekhim's entities.
Release Of Political Prisoners
The move comes after Belarus released a number of political prisoners in recent months, and following the country's lukewarm support for Russia following its recent military action in Georgia.
Aleksey Yanukevych, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that the move came because of the release of political prisoners.
"The response by the United States is, in my opinion, smart and limited in time -- because the sanctions are suspended for six months. This gives the Lukashenka regime an opportunity to make a step toward democratization of the country," Yanukevych said.
"If there is no such step, and it is possible, then the United States will bring back the sanctions and maybe will introduce additional ones."
Significantly, last month saw the release of Alyaksandr Kazulin, an opposition politician who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in March 2006 for organizing protest rallies after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was reelected to a third term as president.
Washington had long sought the release of Kazulin, who ran unsuccessfully against Lukashenka in the election considered to be fraudulent by the United States and the European Union.
United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on September 5 that more "positive" steps from the West can be expected if the country's upcoming parliamentary elections are conducted relatively fairly.
"Now the ball is in the Belarusian authorities' court. They need to demonstrate that they can change the situation by changing their behavior. Their first test will be on September 28 [when they can show] that they count the votes fairly and that participants in the election campaign and monitors are involved in the process of monitoring the vote count," Lyabedzka said.
U.S. Deputy Assistant of State David Merkel traveled to Minsk in late August to discuss ways of improving the United States' strained relations with Belarus. AP reported that the envoy made clear to the Belarusian authorities that the conduct of the September 28 polls would be a key consideration in whether sanctions and visa restrictions imposed against Belarus would be dropped.
A State Department spokesman told the news agency that the United States wants Belarus to allow the return of diplomats who were kicked out of the country earlier this year after increased sanctions were imposed against Minsk.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the U.S. Treasury Department's Belarus Sanctions Program, said in a statement September 5 that while Lakokraska and Polotsk Steklovolokno would be allowed to resume transactions with U.S. entities for a period of 180 days, all property and interests of the two companies that were previously blocked by the United States will remain blocked.