In late April the US State Department released the global human rights report for 2017, where Belarus was labelled an authoritarian state.
On a bright side, the country is no longer perceived as the last dictatorship in Europe.
According to the latest report, the most significant human rights in the country issues included:
- life-threatening prison conditions,
- arbitrary arrest and, detention,
- failure to provide fair trials due to executive interference in the judiciary,
- interference with privacy,
- severe interference with freedom of expression and the press,
- trafficking in persons and many other severe human rights violations.
Nevertheless, there is still progress in relations between Belarus and the US.
The Belarusians now have an opportunity to receive American visas of all categories in Minsk for the first time in 10 years.
Besides, the US once again extended the suspension of sanctions for nine Belarusian enterprises for half a year.
The prospects of bilateral relations, what Belarus should undertake to get all American sanctions lifted, and whether the image of Belarus changed from the “last dictatorship in Europe” to the “peacemaker” for the US or not.
Former senior employee for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and now a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation in Washington, Samuel Charap shared his opinion on the current issues.
Samuel, how do you assess the current relations between the US and Belarus? Belarusian political scientists believe that they are frozen at the level of “diplomatic bows.” Do you agree?
It depends on what you compare them to. The relations have clearly improved since 2008, when the ambassador was expelled, or even from the period of imposing sanctions, that is, since 2004.
It is clear that there was no breakthrough – the ambassadors still did not return, but the relationship has clearly improved since that time.
But we should understand that under current circumstances there is a limit to the progress.
And what is the limit?
On the conditions of imposing sanctions there are specific requirements for observance of human rights and political prisoners.
And for when these circumstances change, something will change too.
But the tension of relations lasts for so long and so much water has gone under the bridge, that you just can’t understand what exactly you need to do.
Certainly, at the level of the US State Department has some specific requirements to your Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bur it’s hard for me to say, how achievable they are.
In my opinion, neither side understands how to get out of this situation while maintaining the overall status quo within Belarus.
Can it be because the US does not have a special interest in Belarus? Especially in view of aggravation of confrontation with Russia.
Although in one interview you said that after 2014, when the conflict between Ukraine and Russia started, the US interest in the Eastern European region increased, and contacts with Belarus were intensified.
Until 2014, there was one situation and after it the situation is completely different. What did you mean?
Modest shifts that were made just after 2014 are, first of all, the suspension of sanctions.
And it is understandable that Belarus is no longer being considered solely by the human rights theme after 2014.
As the new doctrine of the US National Defense says, we are now in a new era of rivalry between the great powers, and this is the prism that is used to examine relations with all other countries.
Thus, Belarus looks different. If we talk about some tangible, material things, then I, the average American, don’t need a visa to go to Minsk.
This is an important moment for improving relations.
If we talk about Ukraine, the experts repeatedly noted that Belarus took a favorable neutral stance towards the conflict in Ukraine and its image of the “last dictatorship of Europe” changed to a “peacemaker”. For the US, the image of Belarus has also improved?
I haven’t heard the expression “the last dictatorship of Europe” in relation to Belarus in the United States for several years.
And, of course, the whole West positively appreciates the role of Belarus as a negotiation platform.
In my opinion, Belarus is still far from Switzerland, but at least it changed its image.
Especially for those who are engaged in foreign policy, Minsk is mentioned in a completely different way.
It is now viewd as a negotiation platform for the most acute conflict in Europe.
Don’t you think that this is just an image for an external world that didn’t not affect the life of ordinary Belarusians?
I agree that nothing has changed fundamentally inside Belarus. But the image is one thing, and reality is another. I would say that sometimes perception is more important than reality.
Although there are certain changes within Belarus, for example in the field of defense and security, the approach to the EAEC.
But these are more tactical things that don’t really affect the lives of ordinary Belarusians.
The author of the American Act on Democracy in Belarus, Chris Smith, said that the future of sanctions entirely depends on the next steps of Lukashenko’s regime.
First, Ukraine, then the release of political prisoners. In your opinion, what will help Belarus get rid of the sanctions completely?
What can be done in the region to achieve this? The incitement of new conflicts, in which Belarus will play a peacekeeping role?
The Belarusian diplomats and the American authorities that introduced them know better how to get out of the sanctions.
But, by and large, since sanctions to Belarus are fixed in the law, it is difficult to completely change the conceptual approach to their adoption or withdrawal due to some external circumstances.
That is, even if some kind of conflict in the region flares up, and Belarus remains neutral, this does not mean that sanctions will be automatically lifted.
If someone becomes bad, Belarus doesn’t become good for everyone.
At least there is a limit to this dynamic, because the dynamics that you describe is present to a certain extent, but I don’t think that it can radically change the state of affairs.