The latest stop on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's charm offensive is the former Soviet outpost of Belarus, a state often described as "Europe's last dictatorship."
The Trudeau government announced that they would be following the lead of America and Europe by dropping the eastern European state from its main sanctions list, meaning that the flow of goods will be able to begin again immediately.
The sanctions have been in place for nearly a decade, after Lukashenko was returned to power in an election that "was deemed by international observers to be severely flawed," according to the Government of Canada.
A statement from Global Affairs Canada reads that the decision "reflects Canada's acknowledgment that the Government of Belarus has made progress in key areas in recent months."
The Belarusian media was more focused on Canada's dubbing of their national team in the World Hockey Championships — Canada leads Belarus 3-0 in the series after an 8-0 win on Monday — but articles in the country's state media did note Ottawa's rapprochement.
Trudeau and Stephane Dion, his foreign minister, have vowed to begin normalizing relations with some nations that have been in Canada's naughty list for the past decade under Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Some sanctions have already been lifted on Iran, and there have been suggestions that Canada is contemplating dropping some of its trade embargos that were placed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea.
Dion has coined the term "responsible conviction" for his re-engagement with those nations, insisting that sitting down with unfriendly states will be more effective than trying to punish them.
Removing Belarus from its most basic sanction list means that Canadian exporters will be able to sell most non-military goods and services to the state, excluding weapons and munitions.
At present, trade between Canada and Belarus exists, but every deal requires an export permit. Even with that relatively onerous regulatory burden, Canada exported nearly $34 million worth of merchandise to Belarus in 2014, mostly in pork; and imported nearly $50 million more, mostly in fertilizers, according to data supplied by the Government of Canada.
The government statement says the sanctions are being dropped on Belarus following "the release of political prisoners and conducting a presidential election in October 2015, which demonstrated greater adherence to international norms and was not marked by the levels of violence and intimidation seen in past elections."
The most recent Belarusian election saw Lukashenko elected with more than 83 percent of the vote, with none of his rivals netting more than five percent, with a reported turnout nearing 90 percent.
While election observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted "some specific improvements and a welcoming attitude" they also highlighted "significant problems, particularly during the counting of votes and tabulation of election results, undermined the integrity of the election."
The violence that had plagued previous elections was not present last October, however. In the 2006 and 2010 elections, Lukashenko's opponents — including some of the presidential candidates — were beaten and arrested by police.
Six of those opposition figures remained in prison until 2015, when they were released and pardoned by Lukashenko, who rose to power after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The current Human Rights Watch report on the country notes the release of those activists but reports that "the overall human rights situation in Belarus did not improve. The death penalty remains in use. Officials pressure and arrest human rights activists and critics on spurious charges. Authorities regularly harass independent and opposition journalists. Legislative amendments further restricted freedom of expression, in particular Internet freedom."
Freedom House similarly continues to list Belarus as "not free," giving it a 6.71 — where 1 is democratic and 7 is authoritarian — and called the freeing of the political prisoners a "well-practiced tactic for appeasing foreign critics ahead of presidential elections."
When the European Union decided to lift its sanctions on Belarus in 2015, Robert Herman, Freedom House's vice president for international programs, said in a statement that "the EU is unaccountably rewarding Aliaksandr Lukashenka by ending sanctions imposed on Belarus without the government having made any meaningful improvements in its abysmal human rights record."
At the time, it was noted that annulling the sanctions was in part because of Lukashenko's role in brokering a breakthrough — albeit fragile — peace agreement between Ukraine and pro-Russian forces in Donetsk and Donbass.
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