By: Desmond Butler, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - The United States is outlining punitive steps it is preparing to take against Belarus if the country does not ease its crackdown on the opposition.
The State Department's top official on Europe, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, told a Senate panel Thursday that the U.S. is moving toward expanding sanctions and stepping up support for Belarus's opposition.
Gordon said steps would include reinstating sanctions against the state-controlled oil and chemical company, Belneftekhim. The U.S. is also drawing up a list government officials who could face sanctions and travel bans. Another official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia told the lawmakers on the Europe subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that officials are looking at ways to help fund independent media in Belarus.
The United States and other Western countries have called the Belarus's elections last month illegitimate and condemned the crackdown on opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Lukashenko, often called Europe's last dictator, has led the country since 1994. In December, he was re-elected, claiming nearly 80 per cent of the ballot in a vote widely regarded as fraudulent. Mass protests against vote fraud were violently dispersed by police, who arrested more than 700 demonstrators, including seven of nine opposition candidates challenging Lukashenko.
The European Union has also threatened to re-impose travel restrictions on Lukashenko and his top officials, despite worries that the tensions between the West and Belarus are pushing Belarus into closer to its traditional ally Russia.
Gordon said that the United States is co-ordinating its steps with the EU. He said that both would announce punitive measures on Jan. 31 and that the United States would participate in a donors conference in Poland on Feb. 2 aimed at raising money for the opponents of Lukashenko.
In recent years, the European Union and the United States have imposed travel bans on senior Belarusian officials and frozen some assets.
Some of the sanctions were suspended with the aim of encouraging Lukashenko to reform and U.S. officials pointed to some encouraging steps by Lukashenko before the election, including freeing some political prisoners and allowing independent elections monitors to oversee the December poll.
Last year, the EU promised 3 billion euros in aid if the presidential elections were deemed free and fair. Those enticements came as Lukashenko feuded with Russia, its traditional patron, over price hikes for the below-market Russian oil and gas that is the linchpin of Belarus' economy. Shortly before the election Russia agreed to drop oil export tariffs. Afterward, Lukashenko appeared to brush off the West.
Melia, who was in Belarus this week to express U.S. outrage and warn of possible steps, said that there is no sign that Belarus is backing off of its crackdown. Gordon said that the U.S. steps may have a limited effect.
"We have no illusions that persuading the government of Belarus to adopt a course toward democracy and the rule of law will be easy or happen quickly," Gordon said.