Every year on her July birthday, my mom in Pittsburgh catches up with her childhood friend Olga, with whom she grew up in Belarus and who still lives there. Their annual catchups usually include sharing news about births of grandchildren, kids’ successes and struggles, and various health ailments. This year, however, Olga’s call was different. She had just been released from jail after serving a 10-day sentence. Her crime? Walking down the street in Minsk, in an area where security services were conducting a raid against nonviolent protesters who were promenading to show continued disapproval of the country’s repressive regime.
Olga is not alone, though she is lucky — her sentence was short. Since last August’s fraudulent elections that spurred massive demonstrations across Belarus, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country’s dictator now in his third decade in power, has imprisoned at least 35,000 of his fellow citizens, many of whom, just like Olga, have lived their entire lives outside of politics. But in today’s Belarus, living outside of politics is no longer an option. The world saw this on display when a Belarusian Olympian, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who also described herself as apolitical, was threatened with punishment for criticizing her team’s management and had to seek political asylum to avoid persecution back home.
Two months after downing a European plane in order to kidnap Roman Protasevich, an opposition journalist, and a year after brazenly stealing an election, Lukashenka is nowhere near done with grabbing the world’s headlines. In addition to Tsimanouskaya, two other Olympians announced this week that they won’t be returning to Belarus for fear of persecution, and a Belarusian human rights activist in exile in Ukraine, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged from a tree after leaving his house in Kyiv for a jog.
There seem to be no red lines left for Lukashenka – he is crossing them all. While continuing to perpetuate repression at home and abroad, he is also cultivating a border crisis in Lithuania and the European Union. In June, in response to the latest round of sanctions from the EU, Lukashenka threatened to weaponize the border with Lithuania, and seems to be making good on his promise by permitting Iraqi refugees to fly to Belarus and then allowing them to cross the Belarusian border to Lithuania. The EU is taking the bait by upping anti-immigrant rhetoric: there is already talk of building a wall, as if that’s really an answer.
And these are only the events that make it into the global headlines. July was particularly brutal for the already battered Belarusian civil society. To some observers, it may seem surprising that Belarus had any civil society left at all, after more than two decades of repression and in particular after this past year. The resilience of civic activism and independent media should indeed inspire awe. After concluding his campaign to decimate all independent media based in Belarus, Lukashenka is now ensuring that remnants of human rights groups and independent analysts are also eliminated. The July wave has been the most brutal one yet, with more than 50 organizations being forced to shut down. During a meeting with his officials on July 30, Lukashenka announced that his purges that month had “revealed” a total of 185 ‘destructive structures.’
A New Breaking Point?
All this suggests that on today’s one-year anniversary of the stolen election, things are close to a new breaking point.
How is one man, in power since 1994 and running a tiny country with almost no natural resources, able to wreak so much havoc? It certainly would not be possible without the backing of his far more powerful neighbor, Vladimir Putin in Russia, whose approval and financial support are playing key roles in emboldening Lukashenka, who in turn seems to be upping the anti-Western ante precisely to earn his keep with Putin.
But even though he is stuck with him for now, Putin harbors no great love for Lukashenka, who has yet to deliver on many of his promises to Russia and keeps resisting deeper political and economic integration, knowing, no doubt, that he would end up distinctly subordinate to Putin, if he survives the politics of any sort of closer alliance at all. There is reason to believe that if the cost of doing business with Lukashenka grows even more, Putin, who is ever the pragmatic, might recalculate.
The international community is not powerless against these two villains. July’s U.S. visit by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the likely legitimate winner of last year’s elections, was an excellent opportunity for the Biden administration to signal its support for the Belarusian democracy movement. Biden’s surprise meeting with Tsikhanouskaya – albeit brief – sent the right message, as she was the first opposition leader to have met with a U.S. president since 2007 (and no Belarusian president has ever met with his U.S. counterpart). Tsikhanouskaya’s acceptance by world leaders (most recently she met with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson) has played an important role in uniting the opposition behind her while boosting the morale of the millions of Belarusians longing for change.
Now it is imperative that American words be accompanied by action. Even though Europe is geographically closer to Belarus, there is much that the United States can do. Plenty has already been written about sanctions, and it bears repeating: the regime needs cash to finance its extensive repression machine, and sanctions can disrupt its reliable financial flows. But there are still loopholes in the sanctions imposed by the EU, and the United States should work with its European partners to close them.
Need for More Sanctions
In the wake of Tsikhanouskaya’s visit, there have been promises of more U.S. sanctions, which should be issued without delay. The EU and the United States should go after a larger circle of those responsible for the crackdown at home (prosecutors, judges, law-enforcement employees, police, prison service staff) and those perpetrating repression abroad on behalf of the regime (security operatives and the like), particularly on EU territory. Not everyone agrees that sanctions are the most effective mechanism, but even critics agree that they still have consequences. As Artyom Shraibman, a political analyst now in exile, suggests, sanctions can throw Lukashenka off balance and will likely push him to make more self-destructive mistakes.
Because Lukashenka’s inevitable reaction to sanctions will be to suffocate whatever shreds of civil society are still left and to continue attempting to perpetrate repressions aboard, the West needs to be prepared to support the growing community of Belarusians in exile and make it easier for them to flee the impossible conditions at home. Though Belarus’ neighbors have stepped up and provided refuge to thousands, the United States should join European countries by welcoming Belarusian exiles, whether by issuing special visas or by creating more education opportunities for Belarusian students to study in the United States. Leaving the country and crossing borders has become increasingly complicated as Belarus is isolated, with limited flights and increasingly unpredictable borders. The West should not create further hurdles for already embattled Belarusians, most of whom are fleeing with hopes to return when their country is finally free.
My colleagues in the philanthropic community also need to expand their support to Belarusian civil society in exile, including by helping them recoup equipment lost in the raids or left behind. Belarusian media and activists who are now abroad deserve not only support, but also physical protection and enhanced security from their host countries, as the tragic murder of Vitaly Shishov in Ukraine made all too obvious. Lukashenka’s regime is flailing and all of its attempts to show its reach beyond its borders must be stopped. Europe needs to take the security of Belarusian exiles more seriously, if only to stop other autocrats from following suit.
It is also important that the West not entertain any negotiations with this regime and that it does not make concessions, as Lukashenka is sure to try to use the border crisis and the extraordinary number of political prisoners (610 as of August 6, and growing by about 10 a week) to extort the EU into lifting sanctions, as he has done in the past.
Though Western bureaucracies inevitably take time to spring into motion, Belarusians do not have the luxury of time. The West must act swiftly, before more people are hurt or killed and before more damage is done to the credibility of democracy.