A senior U.S. State Department official says the United States will strengthen existing sanctions against Belarus and increase its financial support for the country's beleaguered civil society sector in response to Minsk's crackdown on democracy activists.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, who outlined the new steps at a January 27 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the sanctions will ban U.S. companies and individuals from doing business with two subsidiaries of the Belarusian state oil and chemical conglomerate Belneftekhim.
The company is considered key to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's financial control of the country.
The U.S. assets of the subsidiaries, Lakokraska and Polotsk Steklovolokno, were frozen under sanctions imposed in 2007, but that restriction was suspended the following year.
Gordon also said the United States will expand an existing travel ban on government officials and impose "additional financial sanctions against individuals and entities."
Along with taking punitive measures against Minsk, Gordon said the United States will expand by nearly $3 million its financial support for "the democratic actors and the victims of repression."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon
"Last year the United States provided $11 million in assistance towards supporting civil society, access to information and political competition, and providing opportunities for more interaction between Belarusian citizens and the outside world. In response to the recent events [in Belarus] we will increase such assistance by nearly 30 percent this year," he said.
Responding To The Crackdown
The U.S. measures follow condemnation from Washington and Western allies of the Belarusian authorities' brutal crackdown on protesters following the disputed December 19 presidential election.
More than 600 people were arrested in December during protest rallies in Minsk, including seven of the nine opposition candidates running against Lukashenka, who has held a 16-year grip on power.
Official results said the man described as "Europe's last dictator" won by nearly 80 percent of the vote, amid allegations of widespread fraud.
Thomas Melia, the deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, testified alongside Gordon at the Senate hearing and said he informed Belarusian officials about the new sanctions during a trip to Minsk earlier this week.
"I returned on Tuesday -- less than 48 hours ago -- from Minsk, where I went at the behest of Secretary Clinton to deliver a strong message to the government about the mounting outrage in the international community and the imminence of a sharp reply, which I did in a face-to-face meeting at the foreign ministry with ashen-faced officials who realized that their hopes of rapprochement with the international community are going up in smoke before their very eyes," said Melia.
Lukashenka, however, has reacted defiantly to the threat of new sanctions -- a threat that comes from Brussels as well.
Referring to a possible EU visa ban against him and other top government officials, the Belarusian president addressed European lawmakers from the country's parliament on January 27. "You have frightened me with sanctions, with taking away visas. May God be with you," he said. "I've already lived with visa restrictions for 10 years [and] I'm still alive and well."
Gordon suggested that the strengthened U.S. sanctions would be coordinated with an EU vote on its own sanctions against Minsk, scheduled for January 31.
U.S. sanctions against Belarus, which were originally imposed by President George W. Bush, came in the wake of Lukashenka's claim of victory in the 2006 presidential elections, another vote that Western observers said was plagued by fraud and was followed by a crackdown on the opposition.
Those measures froze the property and financial assets in the United States of senior Belarusian government officials, including Lukashenka, and U.S. companies and individuals were barred from engaging in transactions with the targeted persons.
Meanwhile, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports that since December's election, the country's KGB security service has continued to target opposition activists, their family members, and supporters.
U.S. Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), who was also present at the Senate hearing, said he had seen the truth behind such reports firsthand.
"[The Belarusian KGB] are systematically searching [activists and their families'] homes, detaining them, harassing them, sending phone calls their way that are bogus, alleging certain things, if they cooperate, will happen," he said. "It's the old Stalinist tactics that are still alive and well in Belarus."
written by Richard Solash with RFE/RL's Belarusian Service