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US Ready for Better Relations With Belarus

The United States said Friday it is prepared for "significant" improvement in the chilly relationship with Belarus, but will be looking closely at the conduct of elections in that country next month as well as other issues. Belarus this month released what were believed to be its last three political prisoners. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department says the United States is ready to consider dropping sanctions against Belarus and returning relations to normal if there is a further easing of political curbs by the Minsk government.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has run the east European country with an authoritarian hand since his election in 1994.

But Belarus has been sending conciliatory signals to western governments since a dispute with neighbor and political ally Russia over energy supplies early this year.

Within the last two weeks, Belarus released the last three persons considered by human rights groups to have been political prisoners, including opposition leader Alexander Kozulin who challenged Mr. Lukashenko in the 2006 presidential election.

The United States responded late last week by sending Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs David Merkel to Minsk to meet government officials and opposition figures, including Kozulin.

In a statement Friday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said Merkel's meetings with Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov and others were productive.

Wood said positive steps by Belarus could lead to a "significant" improvement in relations including the removal of U.S. visa restrictions and economic sanctions.

"Deputy Assistant Secretary Merkel made clear that the conduct of parliamentary elections September 28th will be important in this regard," he said. "Merkel emphasized our interest in returning to normal staffing in Belarus, which the Belarusian authorities reduced to only five American positions this spring."

The two countries engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions earlier this year, after the Minsk government ordered the departure of U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart in protest of human rights-related U.S. economic sanctions.

The United States stopped issuing most visas to would-be Belarusian travelers because of the limited embassy staff in Minsk.

Spokesman Wood said U.S. envoy Merkel's meetings with Kozulin and civil society members focused on the September elections, which are to be monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe among others.

He said Merkel pressed Minsk authorities for "acceptable" treatment, including proper medical care and visitation rights, for American businessman Emanuel Zeltser who was given a three-year prison term on industrial-espionage charges in August.

Wood said under questioning that the United States would not take a positive view if Belarus followed Moscow's lead and recognized as independent the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But he said he would not speculate if such action would kill chances for improved U.S. relations with Minsk.

Belarusian President Lukashenko said Thursday Russia had "no other moral option" but to recognize the two areas and a foreign ministry official in Minsk said Belarus would follow suit within days.

Thus far, Moscow stands alone in the recognition move, which has drawn sharp criticism from the United States and European Union as a violation of Georgia's territorial integrity.