Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Part 1: Political and Human Rights Conditions

Belarus has an authoritarian regime that claims its legitimacy through fraudulent elections, nondemocratic referenda, and arbitrary decrees. Since his election in 1994 as the country's first president, Aleksandr Lukashenka has systematically undermined democratic institutions and consolidated power in the executive branch. Elections in 2006 declared Lukashenka president for a third term and, despite certain procedural improvements, parliamentary elections in September 2008 again failed to meet international standards for democratic elections. All internationally recognized political prisoners were released in 2008. However, arbitrary arrests, harassment, and detention of citizens for political reasons continued. Authorities allowed limited distribution of two major independent newspapers through state networks after a three-year ban, registered the "For Freedom" civic organization, and created some room for a wider dialogue with civil society.

Despite the above positive developments, the country's human rights record remains very poor. Politically motivated court trials are frequently conducted behind closed doors by a judiciary that lacks independence and issues seemingly predetermined verdicts. The government often seizes published materials from civil society activists and continues to limit the distribution of independent newspapers. The few remaining independent publications are often fined on the pretext of administrative infractions or through libel suits. State security services sometimes use unreasonable force to disperse peaceful protesters. Many NGOs, political parties, unions, and religious groups continue to be denied registration and are subjected to fines, prosecution, eviction, and closure, and their leaders are subject to continued harassment. The regime's hostility to democracy and human rights, coupled with its near monopoly over mass media, has created a prevailing climate of fear and repression. Many persons, influenced by pervasive government propaganda, are wary of reform and the U.S. Government's policy of promoting democratic institutions and a market economy.

Part 2: U.S. Government's Democracy Objectives

The U.S. Government's principal foreign policy objective in the country is to promote the emergence of a democratic, peaceful, and prosperous country that respects human rights and the rule of law. As a result, although the United States and Belarus have diplomatic relations, the United States selectively engages at the assistant secretary level and below with government officials and places a priority on empowering the country's people to determine their future and reform their state. Through the embassy, the United States asserted its policy interests and concerns to government authorities at senior levels, while simultaneously reaching out to the country's people with educational travel for citizens and other programs to develop a cadre of prodemocracy professionals. In a country where the government discourages academic freedom and independent thinking, and restricts fundamental freedoms such as speech, assembly, and association, the United States supports the continued development of civil society, including independent media, human rights and democracy activists, prodemocracy political parties, legal support organizations, independent trade unions, and local entrepreneurs. To counter anti-U.S. propaganda disseminated by government controlled media, the United States prioritizes engaging society with public diplomacy and assistance programs that promote openness to democratic values, human rights, independent media, the rule of law, and free, fair, and transparent elections.

Acting in cooperation with the European Union (EU) and other international partners, the United States continues to monitor and take action against officials responsible for human rights abuses, assaults on democracy, and state corruption, which the regime exploits to preserve its hold on power. The United States also cooperates closely with the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and neighboring countries to promote democracy and human rights through the coordinated release of press statements and other actions on specific human rights abuses committed by the regime. The United States continues to focus on cooperation with local authorities on nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and combating trafficking in persons.

Part 3: Supporting Top Priorities and Other Aspects of Human Rights and Democratic Governance

U.S. assistance focuses on developing and strengthening prodemocracy parties and civil society groups. In recent years, the United States provided assistance to improve the organizational and technical capacities of prodemocracy parties at the regional and national levels, and helped parties and organizations better coordinate with each other, reach out to constituents, and develop issue-based platforms that respond to citizen interests. The United States continues its policy of promoting democracy by denying direct, non-humanitarian assistance to government entities; monitoring, reporting, and speaking out on governmental abuses; supporting democracy and human rights programs; and facilitating educational and professional exchanges. The United States continues to support democracy and human rights programs and to facilitate educational and professional exchanges. These efforts take place despite the government's demand, in response to increased U.S. sanctions in 2008, that the embassy reduce its U.S. staff by 90 percent.

The United States continued to increase access to alternative sources of information through the Internet, strengthen independent print and broadcast media, and build legal defense capacity to support the rule of law. U.S. assistance supported internal and external independent news organizations, which provided independent information via print publications, the internet, satellite and terrestrial radio, and satellite television. For example, the United States supported a network of 63 NGOs that published 49,000 copies of 26 weekly issues of the largest independent newspaper in Belarus. U.S. assistance also strengthened the professional capacity of over 90 journalists. With the support of U.S. programs, an independent media outlet expanded its internet audience to nearly 28,000 users per month, a seventeen-fold increase over the previous two years. U.S. funding supports the education of 1,800 youths at a distinguished local university currently exiled to a neighboring country.

In 2007 and 2008 the United States increased existing sanctions on the regime and imposed new sanctions targeting government entities, as well as officials responsible for human rights abuses and repression. Following the release of the last political prisoners in 2008, the United States suspended some sanctions against state-owned petrochemical conglomerate Belneftekhim, and noted that further action on sanctions would depend on additional positive human rights steps taken by the government. The United States closely monitors and publicly condemns the government's persistent, calculated attacks on rallies and demonstrations, opposition political parties, civil society organizations, religious groups, and independent media outlets. U.S. officials demonstrate support for prodemocracy forces by attending or monitoring politically motivated trials of opposition members, independent journalists, and civil society activists. For example, U.S. officials observed the trials of three young and prominent political activists who were conscripted into the military despite health concerns and the fact that they had not completed their studies. In September 2008, President Bush met former presidential candidate and political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin, following his August 2008 release. President Bush also met Kazulin's daughter and opposition activist Volha Kazulina in July and December 2008. U.S. officials meet regularly with opposition and civil society leaders.

The United States provided assistance to more than 90 local NGOs to promote human rights, the rule of law, civic participation, gender equality, labor rights, civic education, market reforms, and democratic institution-building. For example, U.S. grants supported the production and distribution of 75,000 bulletins on the biased law on religion, as well as the conduct of a petition campaign to amend the law. U.S. programs also improved the organizational and technical capacity of national, regional and local NGOs. This training and funding encouraged organizations to set long-term goals and formulate strategies for the future. The United States also strengthened the infrastructure and capacity of legal clinics throughout the country, enhancing their ability to provide free legal services to pensioners, women and new mothers, students, the destitute, and prisoners and their families. U.S. assistance also supports efforts to reduce trafficking in persons, with a particular focus on women between the ages of 16 and 35 and, increasingly, men recruited for labor exploitation. U.S.-funded programs aim to increase awareness of trafficking among risk groups and the general public, to help prevent human trafficking by improving job searching skills and vocational training, to facilitate trafficking victim reintegration into society, and to build the capacity of NGOs to improve victim identification and protection. The U.S. facilitates direct humanitarian aid through funding the transport of supplies donated by private Americans and U.S. companies.