Belarus in US Congress: Economic Interests or Concerns about Human Rights?

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On July 17, 2015, Representative Steve Pearce of New Mexico proposed a bill imposing sanctions on JSC Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest potash miners.

Titled "Belarus Democracy and Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2015", the bill emphasises human rights violations in Belarus and warns that the October 2015 election is unlikely to be free.

The call for sanctions is coming at the time when the relations between Belarus and the USA have marginally improved in the light of the Ukrainian crisis.

The aim of US sanctions has always been to promote democracy and punish human rights violators in Belarus. Yet Pearce and many other supporters of sanctions in the US Congress seem to be more interested in trade protectionism than in promoting democracy in Belarus. Such uneasy coexistence of economic and humanitarian concerns risks undermining the credibility of the US commitment to human rights in Eastern Europe.

Who is Afraid of Belaruskali?

The recent surge in attention of a number of New Mexico’s congressmen to Belarus resulted from Belaruskali’s importance to the global potash market. New Mexico is a state where several potash miners operate, including Intrepid Potash and Intercontinental Potash Corporation. Contributions from potash companies pay for political campaigns of Republican and Democratic congressmen alike.

In June, two senators from New Mexico requested an investigation of “whether JSC Belaruskali is evading trade sanctions.” Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich wrote to the US Treasury that the Belarusian firm “threatens law-abiding U.S. potash companies.”

In March 2014, Belaruskali split from the state-owned petroleum and chemical conglomerate Belneftekhim, under US sanctions since 2007 for its ties to the Belarusian President. The split allowed it to start exporting potash to the US following a 7-year hiatus.

In March 2015, Belaruskali agreed to sell its potash to China for the first half of the year at a below market price. The contract disadvantages North America’s exporting cartel Canpotex, which had been holding out for higher prices.

The agreement also devalued the shares of Intrepid Potash, one of top campaign contributors for Representative Steve Pearce, who proposed the July 17 bill. According to the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, Intrepid Potash also donated money to campaigns of Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, who requested an investigation against Belaruskali last month.

Motivated by Christian Activism?

Representative Steve Pearce’s approach to Belarus mixes economic considerations with missionary zeal. The Congressman travelled to Belarus in May 2015 to talk about God, freedom and democracy. Capitol Ministries, a DC-based evangelical group that “provides Bible studies, evangelism and discipleship to political leaders,” sponsored the trip.

Pearce "talked about how biblical concepts of truth, honesty, fairness, trust and hope—the underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution—can benefit the country that was once a part of the Soviet Union.” He also emphasised the importance of the country’s position between the West and the East. The congressman's move against Belaruskali, however, suggests that instrumentalises human rights rhetoric to protect the economic interests of his US constituents.

The religious tinge of US foreign policy goes back to the presidency of George Bush, Jr., who signed Belarus Democracy Act in 2004. A year earlier, Bush claimed that “liberty is both the plan of Heaven for humanity, and the best hope of progress here on earth.” Critical of human rights in Belarus, the Bush administration overlooked no less egregious abuses in oil-rich Azerbaijan.

Defending Human Rights

With some changes, Representative Christopher Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey, reintroduced Belarus Democracy Act in 2003. As a chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on human rights, Smith also sponsored the subsequent reauthorisation acts.

Smith has been an uncompromising critic of Lukashenka and other human rights violators for a long time. In 2011, following a meeting with former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich, the Representative went as far as to ask the Obama administration to seek the indictment of the Belarusian President by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Such activism earned Smith the ire of China, Cuba, Russia, and Belarus. In 2013, he was denied a visa to travel to Moscow. In his rhetoric, Smith often brings up God-given rights; his conception of human rights was criticised for excluding gays.

Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, has also maintained a long interest in Belarus’s politics. Pallone introduced a bill focused on Belarus as early as in 1996. The bill called on the US government to “press the Government of President Lukashenka to abide by the provisions of the Helsinki Accords and the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and guarantee freedom of the press, allow for the flowering of Belarusan [sic] culture.”

A representative of the Belarusan-American Association (BAZA) told Belarus Digest that Pallone frequently “provides statements in conjunction with March 25 celebrations, at the specific request of his Belarusian-American constituents.” The association has interacted with Members of the U.S. Congress and their staffs to draw their attention to Belarusian politics since the 1950s.

Members of the organisation's DC Chapter noted two factors driving attention to Belarus in the US Congress: constituent interests and/or “a cause that is important to that particular Member of Congress.” Notably, interest in Belarus is bipartisan. The US Congress has passed Belarus Democracy Act and its subsequent reauthorisation acts unanimously.

US Congressmen also occasionally visit Minsk, meeting with both governmental officials and families of political prisoners. Such visits frequently end with renewed calls for sanctions. For example, Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, returned from a trip to Minsk in 2011 to introduce a resolution calling for the expansion of sanctions.

Double Standards?

Belarus and other countries criticised for their human rights violations often question US motives and accuse Washington of double standards. Belneftekhim has traditionally maintained that sanctions were an attempt at unfair competition.

Though genuine concern over human rights is behind many initiatives in the US Congress, economic interests do seem to feed the interest in sanctions, as the bill proposed by Pearce in July demonstrates. Economics may play an even greater role in determining which authoritarian states are able to avoid congressional scrutiny.

Because economic sanctions are bound to generate domestic winners and losers, congressional support for sanctions may never be motivated by concerns about human rights alone, even for such small economies as Belarus. In the long run, the use of human rights rhetoric in pursuit of other interests undermines the credibility of the US commitment to democracy and human rights.

Volha Charnysh is an analyst with the Ostrogorski Centre, the Executive Editor of Belarus Digest and a PhD Candidate in Government at Harvard University.

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