The United States called on Belarus on July 30 to conduct its upcoming presidential election in a free and fair manner as it expressed disappointment over the lack of Western observers to monitor the vote.
Belarus will hold a presidential election on August 9 in what is shaping up to be a tough race for incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka, an authoritarian leader who has been in power since 1994.
Belarus, whose elections consistently have been deemed neither free nor fair by Western observers since the late 1990s, did not invite the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in time to monitor the vote.
“We deeply regret that the OSCE will not have the opportunity to send observers to see this election,” George Kent, who serves as deputy assistant secretary overseeing policy toward Belarus, told RFE/RL in an interview on July 30.
The senior State Department official said the United States has “raised the issue of having observers, as well as our desire to see the elections conducted freely and fairly.”
Lukashenka has cracked down on the opposition during the campaign, with the arrest of hundreds of people, including activists and bloggers – as well as some candidates.
Nonetheless, opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya still attracted tens of thousands of supporters at a rally in Minsk on July 30 as her campaign gathers steam. Tsikhanouskaya joined the race after her husband, a candidate, was arrested.
Kent said the United States has expressed concern over the detainment and harassment of journalists and has raised the topic with Belarusian officials.
“We do raise these issues because I think they are at the core of any successful society,” he said.
Freedom of the press is critical, he said. Citizens need information so they can make decisions about their society.
The conduct and the outcome of the elections could have a profound impact on Minsk’s relationship with foreign countries, including the United States.
Washington imposed sanctions on Belarus in the 2000s over human rights abuses, including a crackdown on political opponents.
While some of the sanctions were eased after Belarus released political prisoners, their full removal requires “additional steps in opening and democratizing to give Belarusians the chance to express their opinions,” Kent said.
The easing of sanctions enabled the United States to ship earlier this year its first tanker of oil to Belarus. A second tanker is currently on its way.
Another step forward in warming relations will come next month when the countries are expected to exchange ambassadors for the first time in 12 years.
The new Belarusian ambassador to the United States will arrive in the middle of August, while the U.S. Senate is expected to confirm Julie Fisher, a top State Department official for Europe, as the new U.S. ambassador to Belarus after her hearing on August 5.
Belarus, wedged largely between NATO nations and Russia, has historically had close ties to its large neighbor to the east. Russia has propped up the economy of Belarus with cheap oil and gas exports.
However, the bilateral relationship has been strained ever since Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, raising concerns in Belarus about its own sovereignty.
Minsk has since rebuffed efforts by Moscow to consummate a planned union state that was first conceived more than 20 years ago.
Kent said the United States wants Belarus to remain a sovereign nation and that Minsk should have the right to choose its own geopolitical trajectory. Warmer ties with the United States and its allies should not preclude a friendly relationship with Russia, he said.
“Even as the U.S. has looked to normalize our relationship, we do not expect nor do we pressure Belarus to make a choice between East and West. That would be a false choice,” Kent said.