In this brief review, we provide a description in what context Belarus attracted the attention of the U.S. presidents. By the “attention” we mean all the references to Belarus in the decisions, statements, and comments of the recent American presidents – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – found in the American Presidency Project (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu). We analyzed 329 documents of this Project, dated from 1991 to 2016. Ten of the documents had redundant information and were not used for this discussion. Twenty-four documents covered the speeches of vice-presidents, press secretaries, and other officials, and were used to supplement the analysis.

The topics of the documents were divided into the following groups: nuclear weapons and disarmament, issues of democracy, economic questions, sanctions, and the miscellaneous group. The diagram below illustrates the resultant classification.

Figure 1. References to Belarus in the Presidential Records, 1991-2016  

All references to Belarus since 1991 can be divided into two main themes or periods: “atomic” and “democratic”. In between these two periods, the attention of the U.S. foreign policy toward Belarus was significantly lower and stayed in the background.
From 1992 until 1996, Belarus 69 times is referred to as a reliable partner in disarmament and non-proliferation. Significant political problems, confrontations between the Parliament and the President, and the Constitutional referendum of 1996 went almost unnoticeable in the statements and decisions of the U.S. Presidents.

After 1996, Belarus is no longer referred to in such a positive context. Whether it was because the issue of nuclear disarmament was exhausted, or the U.S. presidential campaign 1996 ended or was it due to the then existing political situation in Belarus, the reason for such a chance is not certain. We believe it was mostly the first and the second reason. The number of references to Belarus dropped to 4-5 times a year, even though the “atomic” topic was on the agenda until the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

With the end of the “atomic era”, U.S. presidents’ interest in Belarus dropped dramatically. No other positive context comes up after that, however, no substantial criticism can be seen either. It is widely believed in Belarus, that the U.S. had a critical opinion of the President Lukashenka due to his pro-soviet views and orientation towards Russia. However, the decisions and statements of the U.S. Presidents do not provide sufficient grounds for such an opinion. The reaction to the constraints of democracy after the referendum of 1996 was sporadic and discrete. The political situation, issues of democracy and political rights have been slowly penetrating the area of interest of the high U.S. officials and consistently stayed in the background.

The problem of democracy. In the documents and statements of the U.S. presidents, the topic of democracy has been appearing sporadically. The first reference of this sort was made in August 1995, when Bill Clinton called Belarus an emerging democracy.
In his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Clinton stated that democracy is still under threat “from Burma to Nigeria and from China to Belarus”. Nevertheless, the real criticism and new language in relation to the situation in Belarus came up during the Bush administration. Thus, on September 17, 2001, right after the presidential elections in Belarus, Lukashenka was called “the last European dictator”.

Despite this change, the Belarusian topic had stayed in the background for a considerable time after that. There can be different explanations of why the interest in Belarus grew in 2004-2005, with no correlation to the particular changes in the political situation or the human rights conditions in Belarus. It is probable that a series of events caused that: consistent constraints on democracy, nearing presidential elections in Belarus, a success of color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, pressure from political opposition forces and Belarusian diaspora, and the deepened cooperation of Belarus with the anti-American regimes, particularly with Iran.

Thus, the attention of the U.S. presidents turned back to Belarus, but in a negative context. Most attention falls on the second presidential term of George Bush. The president noted “inevitability” of Belarus joining other free countries and that Belarus presents a problem on the regional level. In general, U.S. presidents 87 times mentioned Belarus in the context of problems with democracy.

In January 2009, George Bush in his address to the newly elected Barack Obama, among other priorities in foreign affairs, called Obama to “bring democracy to Belarus”. However, his call was not heard. Even though the influence of the direction of the previous U.S. president can be noticed, a deep détente between the U.S. and Belarus began. In 2009-2010, the issue of democracy in Belarus was mentioned in the statements and documents of the President Obama 3-4 times, and none of those statements considered Belarus as a regional problem.

However, the political crisis and mass detentions in Belarus in December 2010 enlivened the Belarusian question. In 2011 there were about 13 references to Belarus, which essentially reminded 2005-2008. However, by 2012 even this topic seemed to have been exhausted, appearing only in several isolated statements, mostly in relation to the human rights violations.

Economy. An economy has not shown to be an important topic in the U.S.-Belarus relations. The most attention to this theme was given in the 1990s when the relations between the countries just began and Belarus was receiving a series of trade and investment benefits. In the beginning of the next century, economic issues came back on the agenda when some of such benefits were revoked. The topic of an economy has regained some attention in 2009, but overall stayed in the background.

Sanctions. The theme of sanctions is covered in another section. Though it is worth mentioning, that since 2006 the sanctions have been a consistent topic of the U.S.-Belarus relations. During the last several years, the references to Belarus in this context concern the extension or cancellation of different sanctions or special measures, previously introduced.

Miscellaneous (Visits, Russia, Ukraine). As far as other kinds of references to Belarus are concerned, they are mostly neutral or positive. The first such references can be traced back to 1993 and 1994 in relation to the visit of the Belarusian delegation to the U.S., headed by Stanislau Shushkevich and the visit of Bill Clinton to Minsk.

The frequency of miscellaneous references grew after 2008 when the beginning of “liberalization” in Belarus, the Russian-Georgian war, coming to power of the Obama administration consistently shift the U.S. attention to Belarus away from the negative context. In 2008, the U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney mentioned Belarus among the countries that Russia was blackmailing with energy resources. Belarus was referenced in a neutral context in connection with the Russia’s integration projects and twice as a place where the peace agreements regarding the East Ukraine were negotiated. Additionally, Belarus was mentioned positively in relation to the Eastern Partnership Initiative and cooperation against human trafficking.

Short conclusions

The U.S. presidents’ attention to Belarus has not been consistent. Analysis of the references to Belarus in the statements of the U.S. presidents shows two significant periods. The first one, positive, falls on the 1990s is related to signing the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. As a result of this first positive wave, the U.S. provided financial assistance and different economic benefits to Belarus and did not react to the constraints on democracy in Belarus.

The second period, culminating in 2005-2008, concerns the issues of democracy, human rights and even the change of the U.S. government. As a result, the image of Belarus got damaged and the country became widely known as the “last Europe’s dictatorship/tyranny”.

However, the beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama marked the detente in the U.S.-Belarus relations. It was not interrupted even by the diplomatic crisis in 2008. The detente was suspended in 2011 only for one year; and even though the sanctions and human rights issues still appear in the statement of the U.S. presidents, Belarus is no longer mentioned as a regional problem.

During the last several years, Belarus has been increasingly mentioned in either neutral or positive context, such as cooperation in the fight against human trafficking, security in the region, and regional cooperation (such as Eastern Partnership).