Last summer, the world watched in admiration as hundreds of thousands of citizens rose up in a national democratic movement in Belarus to rid the country of its longstanding ruler, Aleksandr Lukashenka. Over months, they protested in the capital, in main cities, and in small communities against his falsification of results for the August 2020 presidential election to steal yet another term in office. A year later, as repressions escalate, Lukashenka remains in power and defies the West. In late May, he even forced the landing of a commercial airliner of a European Union member-flag plane flying over Belarus so that he could arrest an exiled opposition journalist who was on board.
The leader of democratic Belarus, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, arrived July 18 in Washington for her first visit. The clear winner of last August’s election, she went into exile in Lithuania not long after the vote, when the Lukashenka regime threatened to arrest her and seize her young children. Her husband was already in jail, a political prisoner whose detention spurred Tsikhanouskaya to join with two other opposition leaders to organize an unprecedented, united opposition election campaign. In Lithuania, she established a Coordinating Office in Vilnius and has worked determinedly to build support from the trans-Atlantic community to pressure the Lukashenka regime to free all political prisoners and agree to genuine dialogue leading to free elections.
Tsikhanouskaya deserves full support from the Biden administration, something lacking until now.
When Belarusians bravely took to the streets for months to defend their vote, continuing to do so in courtyards and side streets as police closed off main avenues, they had the right to expect decisive support from the West. The EU, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada all declared they would not recognize the legitimacy of the elections and condemned violence being used by the regime. But the EU waited until Oct. 4 to impose only a mild set of sanctions, namely adding 54 individuals (including Lukashenka only on second thought) to visa bans and asset freezes. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump was silent on Belarus, although the administration also imposed individual sanctions. As a result, Lukashenka, firmly backed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, felt free to ramp up repression.
Over the last 11 months, Lukashenka’s security police (still known as the KGB) has carried out a campaign of terror reminiscent of the harshest Soviet rule. More than 35,000 people have been swept up and held in detention centers where torture is routine. Almost 600 long-term political prisoners have been sentenced to up to 15 years in prison or face severe charges. In recent days, a new nationwide crackdown has included the human rights organization Viasna (dozens of activists from national and regional offices were detained and many indicted, including founder Ales Bialatski) and independent media such as the longstanding weekly newspaper Nasha Niva, regional newspapers, and the U.S. broadcaster Radio Liberty, whose offices were destroyed.
Through much of this time, the EU acted slowly, enacting two more mild sanctions packages on individuals, bringing the total to 88 new names, and several government entities carrying out repression such as the KGB and prosecutor’s offices. (Travel bans are hardly severe punishments on Lukashenka and his cohort, who are not famous for traveling outside their own country or Russia.) As for the United States, despite having a new president who pledged that an America committed to advancing democracy “was back,” the administration waited until March to announce a suspension of some (but not all) waivers on sectoral sanctions imposed on nine companies, but with the timeframe for re-imposing the penalties unclear.
It was only in early June, after Lukashenka hijacked the Ryanair plane to arrest journalist Raman Pratasevich, co-founder of the influential Telegram messaging app channel Nexta, that the EU acted more decisively. It imposed a ban on air traffic, sanctioned important sectors of the economy, and committed $3.7 billion to an assistance plan for investment, macro-economic and social support, and reforms initially proposed by Tsikhanouskaya for a time in the future when a democratic transition is underway in Belarus.
The Biden administration coordinated with similar sanctions, and this month formally banned travel between the United States and Belarus, even with interim stops, except for humanitarian and national security purposes. Still, the United States and the EU both kept significant carveouts on sectoral sanctions — for example, any contracts signed before the date of the sanction’s package are exempted, and most potash exports and oil exports are unaffected. Although the EU sanctioned one Russian oligarch who had aided in the transfer of Russian media operatives to Belarusian state television, both the EU and the U.S. failed to target many key Belarusian and Russian oligarchs and Russian private and state entities helping to sustain Lukashenka, such as oil companies Slavneft and Rosneft, the potash producer Urakli, and state financial institutions (as proposed here). The United States also did not commit to fully implement the sanctions, for example to dry up funds from UAE and other oil states doing business with Lukashenka and the regime.
As regrettable as the U.S. approach on sanctions has been the Biden administration’s lukewarm signaling to Tsikhanouskaya’s office. Tsikhanouskaya has built support in EU countries, the U.K., and Canada; leaders and foreign ministers have been meeting with her and recognizing her legitimacy as the leader of Belarus society. But the Biden administration dallied in its first six months for U.S. invitation and ignored appeals to invite Tsikhanouskaya to attend the recent G7 summit in Europe or to meet her in Brussels during EU and NATO summits, when other leaders from outside those groupings attended.
Just before she left Europe for the Washington trip, Samantha Powers, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan agreed to meet with her to discuss concrete measures for support. Then, finally, after Tsikhanouskaya arrived in the U.S., Secretary of State Blinken also agreed to meet with her. This is laudable, but signals a lower commitment than EU leaders — Presidents of the European Union Council and Commission Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen, respectively, have conducted meetings with Tsikhanouskaya in Brussels, and French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also have met with her.
Lack of Clear Policy?
All of this speaks to a lack of a real U.S. policy towards achieving a free and democratic Belarus. Since Lukashenka began instituting an authoritarian regime 25 years ago, just two years into his first term, democratic countries vacillated between imposing punishments for repression and offering enticements to woo him from Russia’s continued grip. Repression and long-term imprisonment of political opponents would result in sanctions; release of prisoners would gain Lukashenka sanctions waivers and another round of “engagement.” In recent years, until 2020, the United States and the EU had a policy of “engagement.” The West’s slow response to Lukashenka’s latest election theft and state violence is the legacy of that failed policy.
Forty years ago, in 1980-81, another national uprising took place against a dictatorship under Soviet control – in Poland. Many in the West thought at the time that Poland could never be free. The Solidarity trade union movement in Poland achieved 16 months of relative open space before the communist regime cracked down at the behest of the Soviet Union. It was a policy of sustained support for the Solidarity movement, together with sustained economic pressure from the West that over time helped impel the communist government in Poland to accept re-legalization of Solidarity when Polish workers rebelled again in 1988.
Biden now should take a clear and principled stand and adopt a real policy for Belarus’s freedom. Have a formal meeting with Tsikhanouskaya in the White House and recognize her as the legitimate democratic representative of Belarus. He should establish a declarative policy of permanent non-recognition of Lukashenka’s government. In addition, he should support Tsikhanouskaya’s call for an international conference of the trans-Atlantic countries and others in order to coordinate sanctions policies, implement a human rights accountability mechanism for those carrying out repression, and demonstrate an urgency to resolving the Belarus crisis. Like the EU, the United States, too, should commit substantial dollars to the Tsikhanouskaya Plan.
Most importantly, the United States and the EU should end the practice of small, incremental steps and announce comprehensive sanctions on the regime, the lifting of which would be clearly conditioned on the release of all political prisoners and a guaranteed process for free and fair elections. These penalties should include suspension of any IMF and World Bank funding; sanctions on all individuals engaged in repression and on key sectors of the economy (without waivers or exceptions); and sanctions on Belarusian and Russian oligarchs and Russian private and state entities acting to prop up Lukashenka. All of this has already been authorized by Congress but not yet implemented by the administration.
Such a policy should also make clear to Putin that the West does not consider Belarus a subject of Russia’s control. It considers Belarus to be an independent country deserving of democracy, freedom, and full sovereignty. Until now, the Biden administration’s apparent reluctance to provide full support for Belarus’s freedom movement appears to be motivated by not wishing to interfere with its priority of establishing “stability and predictability” with Putin’s Russia. But it is Lukashenka who has integrally tied Belarus to Putin’s mafia state; Russia has no more claim to determine Belarus’s affairs than it does the Baltic States, Poland, or Ukraine. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has made clear that the Belarus democracy movement is neither anti-Russian nor pro-EU: it is pro-Belarusian sovereignty, human rights, and democracy. The U.S. should have a similar position.
Determined U.S. policy, coordinated with the EU, Canada, and the U.K., would send the Belarusian people the message they deserve: full support from the West for their quest for democracy. In the end, as Poland, Belarus can be free.