Human rights violations played a major role in the deterioration of Belarus’ relations with the West. In 2006, the U.S. issued a report entitled “The Last Dictatorship in Europe,” also accusing Lukashenko’s government of sales of arms and weapons-related technologies to countries of concern, including state sponsors of terrorism.
After the 2006 post-election crackdown on demonstrators and the opposition, the EU and the U.S. applied targeted travel restrictions and financial sanctions against Lukashenko and other regime leaders. The travel ban was widened in 2007 to include directors and deputy directors of state-owned enterprises.
Later in 2007 the U.S. imposed sanctions on the state oil company, Belneftekhim, which Washington charged was personally controlled by Lukashenko. The Treasury Department froze the company’s U.S. assets and barred Americans from doing business with it. The U.S. subsequently allowed a broad interpretation of a list of firms linked to Belneftekhim. The U.S. and the EU continued to call for the release of political prisoners, including Alaksandar Kazulin.
In 2008 Belarus withdrew its ambassador from Washington, and the U.S. ambassador in Minsk was asked to leave the country. In addition, the U.S. embassy was asked to reduce its staff by the Belarus government, and later asked to cut its staff further down to five diplomats.
In 2008 the U.S. suspended its ban on U.S. companies dealing with two Belarusan firms, Lakokraska and Polotsk-Steklovolokno, although continuing the ban on the state oil and chemical company Belneftekhim. The move followed the release of several opposition activists by the government, including Alaksandar Kazulin.
A short-term positive development in the relationship was Belarus’ agreement to give up its stock of weapons-grade uranium, announced in a joint statement by Secretary of State Clinton and Belarus Foreign Minister Martynov issued after a meeting on the margins of the OSCE Summit in Astana in 2010. Two shipments of uranium had already left Belarus during October and November, according to the statement, with the remainder to be eliminated by 2012. The statement was also noteworthy because it included Belarus’ acceptance of language that enhanced respect for democracy and human rights in Belarus was central to improvement of the bilateral relationship.
Alienation from the West
The Lukashenko regime’s repression of former presidential candidates and protesters led to a sharp backlash from the West in 2011. The harsh sentences led to EU and U.S. travel bans on Belarus leaders. President Obama termed the situation in Belarus “unacceptable,” while Polish Prime Minister Tusk stated that the Lukashenko regime “had no future in Europe.”
Cooperation with U.S. and NATO on Afghanistan
Despite sanctions, Belarus has continued to participate in the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), through which non-lethal supplies are shipped overland to American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The volume of goods that transited the Belarus route of NDN reportedly doubled during 2012. Belarus will be playing a similar role in the reverse transit when the U.S. and NATO forces exit from Afghanistan in 2014.