The State Department is raising the prospect of improvement in U.S. relations with Belarus following the release - in the span of less than a week - of three activists believed to have been the east European country's last political prisoners. A senior U.S. envoy has been sent to Minsk to meet Belarusian leaders. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The State Department says there is a real possibility of significant improvement in the frosty U.S. relationship with Belarus, after that country freed the last three detainees viewed by Western governments as political prisoners.
Belarusian authorities Wednesday released two dissident figures -- businessman Sergei Parsyukevich and youth activist Andrei Kim - who had been jailed on charges stemming from a demonstration against government economic policies in April.
Their release came four days after the country's most prominent dissident figure, former opposition presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, was also freed.
The United States and European Union, which have imposed sanctions against Belarus because of its human rights record, both welcomed the releases.
Late Wednesday, the State Department said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs David Merkel was being sent to Belarus for meetings with government officials and members of the opposition.
In a talk with reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said the prisoner release is a very positive step that will be taken into account as the relationship is reviewed.
"One of the concerns we've had all along with Belarus has been its holding of political prisoners," Wood said. "And obviously they've released the last of them, and that's going to be an important step in terms of how we look at the future of the relationship between the United States and Belarus."
Wood said he did not know if U.S. envoy Merkel, who arrived in Minsk Thursday, would meet President Alexander Lukashenko.
The Belarusian leader has ruled the former Soviet republic with an authoritarian hand since being elected president in 1994. But his government has been sending conciliatory signals to western government since a dispute with Russia over energy supplies early this year.
News reports have suggested the prisoner releases may reflect a desire by the Lukashenko government to distance itself from Moscow after Russia's intervention in Georgia.
Under questioning, Spokesman Wood declined to speculate about Belarusian motives but said the actions are welcome.
"I don't know but we certainly hope Belarus will look westward," he said. "But that, again, is something that is going to have to be determined by the Belarusian authorities. It's hard to say what they're thinking but again, we view very positively the fact that these prisoners were released."
Wood said all options in the bilateral relationship would be reviewed including the return of a U.S. ambassador to Minsk.
Former envoy Karen Stewart was withdrawn earlier this year after Belarus ordered cuts in the U.S. embassy staff to protest American sanctions.
Wood said U.S. officials remain concerned about the case of Emanuel Zeltser, a U.S. citizen sentenced to three years in prison in Belarus last August on charges of industrial espionage.
Another spokesman said U.S. officials have no way of gauging whether Zeltser received a fair trial because the proceedings were closed. He said the United States continues to demand consular access to Zeltser, who reportedly is in ill health.