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CONGRESSMAN CHRIS SMITH ON SANCTIONS AND COOPERATION

Окт 19, 2017
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Congressman Chris Smith has authored all three versions of the United States’ Belarus Democracy Act, which imposed sanctions against Minsk in 2004, 2006 and 2011. At the height of the conflict, the politician said that Alexander Lukashenko should be tried by the tribunal in The Hague. Smith also said that at a personal meeting the two men had had the president of Belarus called him Public Enemy Number One of the Belarusian people. Congressman Chris Smith spent last week at an OSCE Parliamentary Assembly session in Belarus, and once again met with President Lukashenko. Below is the view of Congress on the past and future of the relationship between Minsk and Washington. Chris Smith’s answers to questions from a correspondent of the Belarusian online publication TUT.BY have been back-translated from Russian.
Chris Smith (R) has represented New Jersey’s 4th congressional district in the US House of Representatives for 36 years. He started working in Congress under Ronald Reagan. Human rights have always been his main focus, and in the past few years, he has concentrated on combating human trafficking, holding the post of OSCE PA Special Representative on this topic.
“I am no longer Public Enemy No. 1”
The meeting with the Belarusian president on July 6 was «frank and
cordial,» the congressman says. Smith, together with ten other lawmakers, had previously met with Lukashenko in 2009.
“Back then everything was different,» the congressman recalls. «He was especially unhappy with me personally, in my capacity as the author of the Belarus Democracy Act. He even called me Public Enemy Number One of the Belarusian people. This time around he did not use these kinds of expressions.”
The US politician adds that this time he did not notice any negative attitude to himself personally from Alexander Lukashenko.
“But actions speak louder than words. I told him that both visa and economic sanctions under the Belarus Democracy
Act had been suspended after the release of political prisoners.”
«If I’m not mistaken, only economic sanctions have been suspended, while visa sanctions have remained…»
“They have partially remained, yes. Sanctions against some companies have been lifted. There is a roadmap for significant systemic progress: registration of political parties, including Belarusian Christian Democracy, freedom of assembly, and permission for journalists to work freely.”
Prior to an October review of the sanctions, Smith plans to hold hearings in Congress to evaluate the situation in Belarus. He also promises to discuss this topic with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence upon his return to the US.
“The future of the sanctions depends entirely on Lukashenko’s next steps.”
«What was the Belarusian president’s reaction to the roadmap?”
“He listened to everything but did not respond.”
At the meeting, Chris Smith also raised the issue of cooperation in combating human trafficking.
“When a child or a woman falls victim to this crime, we must do everything possible to save them, regardless of politics.”
Smith wrote four laws on this topic in the United States and revisited the problem of human trafficking several times in the course of our conversation.
“Our State Department’s recent report on human trafficking put Belarus in the group of countries with the lowest ratings. The report includes a list of very detailed recommendations. They are all easily doable within a week if there is a desire to do so, for example, to stipulate in the law that if a minor is involved in sexual intercourse for money even once, then that is considered human trafficking. You do not have that here yet. Another simple measure would be a presidential decree making airlines commit to conducting training for flight attendants, to enable them to identify potential victims of trafficking [among passengers]. Such trainings have been conducted in our country, and they have had an impressive effect.”
In a 2011 interview, Chris Smith said that Lukashenko should be tried by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. We asked the congressman if he still held this opinion.
«I think that people can always change and improve. It is always a question of
actions. I don’t think it necessary to use those kinds of expressions. Doing so now would be provocative, while I am sincerely working to improve the human rights situation in Belarus and make the country more open. I met with leaders of your political parties, and they are expecting the country to open up. We can’t guarantee who will win the election. But we can at least try to make sure that there is a level playing field, including access to the media.»
Smith does not attempt to evaluate whether Alexander Lukashenko has changed between the meeting they had in 2009 and last Thursday.
“I do not judge by how I feel. I have been to China many times. Each time there were Potemkin villages until I met with dissidents, those who are systematically tortured. But if you are only meeting with the government, things are very polite: ‘Let us feed you and show you the Great Wall.’ I respond: ‘When I visit as a tourist together with my wife, that will be great, but this is a human rights visit.’ Therefore, it’s always about deeds, not words.”
Smith says that the release of political prisoners is among the most significant changes in Belarus in the past 10 years. The congressman also expects the rehabilitation of former political prisoners and election legislation reform.
«When we first passed the law [on sanctions], people here like (Anatoly) Lebedko had their arms broken and were beaten. He has been to prison recently like many others as well. But now they are not treated the same way.”
One of the best US investments in peace and security
We asked Smith if he considered his Belarus Democracy Act to be a success.
“Yes, I do, at least some aspects of it. Certainly, democracy has not appeared here, elections are still not honest or fair. Some parties have yet to be registered. However, the Act gave hope to many dissidents. Things could have become worse. For example, the situation in Cuba is worse than before. Obama restored diplomatic relations with them, while I have not been allowed to visit Cuba for 25 years. I was also denied a Belarusian visa for many years, but I am here now.”
«But you are visiting as a diplomat…»
“It’s true, but I think that if I tried to visit again, I would be allowed in. I’m not judge or jury, I only care about the rights of Belarusians, including victims of human trafficking. And I tried to communicate this to Lukashenko.” Smith gave the president an example: On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the congressman held hearings in the presence of the ambassadors of Ukraine and Belarus and offered an exchange of research and assistance in the transplantation of cord blood stem cells for the treatment of cancers.
“I said: ‘Mr.President, despite all our problems, we have always cared about your people. We want to do all we can to fight diseases caused by radiation.’”
We asked the congressman to explain the difference in the approaches used by Brussels and Washington regarding sanctions against Minsk: The EU has repealed most of the restrictions, while the US merely prolongs the suspension of some of them, and other sanctions remain in place. The congressman is convinced that by abandoning those mechanisms, the US would lose the the ability to exert pressure on countries.
“Our sanctions helped Soviet Jews leave the country. My first visit to Moscow was in 1982, and we were able to convince them to allow the Jews to leave. If there are no sanctions, then good luck to you with your moral arguments. Something major is needed. Certainly, everything has to depend on whether the sanctions will lead to the declared goal of democratization and respect for human rights. If not, then it is better not to resort to them.”
We reminded the congressman that the Trump administration had submitted to Congress a draft budget with reduced international assistance, including a complete rejection of aid to our country. How should Belarus understand that message?
“I am a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and we have already had one reading of this budget. Most of the proposed cuts, including a reduction in funding for food programs, will simply not pass. We have never received a draft budget from any administration that even slightly resembles what we are dealing with.”
«Do you mean that you guys will not reduce Belarus funding to zero?»
“No, I don’t think that will happen. Funding the State Department and foreign aid is one of the best US investments in peace and security on Earth.”
Chris Smith’s answers to questions from a correspondent of the Belarusian online publication TUT.BY have been abridged and back-translated from the Russian.

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