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Belarus Distorts U.S. Message, Ignores Repression Record

Belsat TV journalists Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Daryya Chultsova, who were detained in November while reporting on anti-government protests, embrace each other in a defendant's cage during their trial in Minsk, February 18, 2021.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Belarus

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Belarus

“Regardless of whatever rhetoric is used to obscure these sanctions, the step is actually aimed at worsening the material well-being of Belarusian citizens and reducing the economic potential of our country – one of the pillars of Belarus' independence.”


The United States has revoked a license authorizing American citizens to do limited business with nine Belarusian state-owned companies previously targeted by U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury Department said on April 19 that any dealings with the companies it listed will be banned after June 3. The interim period allows U.S. firms and individuals to “wind down” transactions with the companies, the Treasury Department said.

Among the nine targeted Belarusian state-owned giants are the Belarusian Oil Trade House, which exports chemical and petrochemical products, Belneftekhim, the country’s largest oil producer, and its U.S. subsidiary Belneftekhim USA Inc.– headquartered in the state of Massachusetts.

Belarus responded to the U.S. sanctions with misleading claims. The country’s foreign ministry accused the U.S. of “hastiness” in making the decision and targeting the Belarusian people.

“In light of recent events and reports one starts seriously wondering about the hastiness the USA demonstrated as it made this decision,” the ministry said in a statement. “[T]he step is actually aimed at worsening the material well-being of Belarusian citizens.”

That does not accurately explain how and why the U.S. revoked the license allowing American citizens to do limited business with the Belarusian companies.

The U.S. State Department said on April 19 that it “fully supports” the Treasury Department decision to revoke the general license as a “further consequence of the Belarusian authorities’ flagrant disregard for human rights and Belarus’ failure to comply with its obligations under international human rights law.”

It noted that more than 340 people in Belarus have been detained and arrested for political reasons.

Belarusian law enforcement vehicles on a street in Minsk, March 25, 2021.
Belarusian law enforcement vehicles on a street in Minsk, March 25, 2021.

The U.S. initially imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2006, with then-President George W. Bush citing “the actions and policies of certain members of the Government of Belarus… manifested in the fundamentally undemocratic March 2006 elections.”

Bush said those Belarusian officials had committed “human rights abuses related to political repression, including detentions and disappearances,” and had engaged in “public corruption, including by diverting or misusing Belarusian public assets or by misusing public authority.” Those actions, Bush said, constituted “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

In other words, the 2006 sanctions were the U.S. response to the political processes in Belarus, which the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) described as lacking “minimum transparency.” The OSCE also condemned the Belarusian government’s unwillingness to “tolerate political competition,” saying authorities there “routinely harassed, detained and arrested” opposition activists and “disregarded” civil and political rights.

The Belarusian government later took steps that Europe and the United States saw as signs of a democratic transition. Those included the release of political prisoners in August 2015. The U.S. and EU eased Belarus sanctions in October 2015, with the U.S. Treasury Department issuing a general license authorizing transactions with certain Belarusian entities. Since then, the U.S. has renewed the general license annually.

However, in and around Belarus’ August 2020 presidential elections, Alexander Lukashenko, the nation’s sole leader since 1994, tightened his grip on the country in the face of a popular uprising in support of the political opposition.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In January, Human Rights Watch Europe director Hugh Williamson said: “In the past year, the Belarusian government shattered its own horrendous record for brutality and repression and spared no effort to shut down dissent in nearly every layer of society.”

In March, Amnesty International called for an “urgent international response” to stop authorities in Belarus from further depriving the rights of its people. “Solidarity with the Belarusian people requires firm, targeted action from the international community,” the London-based human rights group said.

As previously reported, Lukashenko, who relies heavily on Russian President Vladimir Putin for support, has been prosecuting political rivals, most of whom are either in jail or in exile.