By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Friday extended sanctions relief for Belarus for another six months, continuing a policy begun during the Obama administration meant to encourage a country traditionally in Russia's orbit to turn to the West.
The waivers to U.S. economic sanctions for nine major Belarus companies began in 2015 and were extended twice last year, and were set to expire on April 30.
The waivers were tied to domestic political reforms and were thrown in doubt after Belarus authorities arrested hundreds of people in March during an attempt to hold a street protest in the capital Minsk.
But the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers sanctions, issued a new waiver on Friday extending the relief until Oct. 30. It allows companies like petrochemical conglomerate Belneftekhim and tire manufacturer Belshina to deal with American businesses.
The Treasury Department said it had made the decision "in consultation and coordination" with the State Department.
A U.S. official said earlier this month that the Trump administration was inclined to renew the sanctions relief at the end of April if Belarus authorities did not "do anything awful."
The sanctions relief was part of an effort to engage with Belarus and its veteran leader, President Alexander Lukashenko. The European Union last year ended five years of sanctions against Belarus.
NATO members, including Poland and the Baltic states, feel threatened by what they see as increased Russian intervention in Europe, including its influence in Belarus.
"There are compelling strategic reasons to continue to improve the West's relationship with Belarus," said Edward Fishman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former State Department official during the Obama administration. "But the Trump administration would be well-served by clarifying the types of actions that would lead to reimposing sanctions, or, if our relations get better, lifting them entirely."
But human rights advocates said the renewed sanctions relief sent a signal that the United States is willing to ignore abuses.
"The recent arrests of hundreds of peaceful protesters and shutdowns of the internet demonstrate that Lukashenko never had any intention to reform, which was the rationale behind providing sanctions relief," said Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First and a former Obama administration official.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)