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Putin stands with Belarus’s dictator — we should stand by its people

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To help the Belarusian people choose their own government, we must deter Russia from intervening more directly in Belarus’s affairs by making it clear any such intervention will incur economic and other material costs. 

When I watched Belarus’s dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, steal an election on Aug. 9 and then allow the beating and imprisonment of protesters and opposition leaders, it seemed like déjà vu.

In 2010, when I was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Lukashenko similarly claimed reelection through massive fraud. Protesters were beaten and his opposition imprisoned. The repression was so horrifying in 2010 that the protests quickly ended. 

With support from the White House and State Department, I joined a group of like-minded ambassadors to call for, organize and fund an OSCE investigation into Lukashenko’s gross human rights violations following the elections. Not surprisingly, the Russian and Belarusian ambassadors refused to support the investigation. Even though Lukashenko ignored its recommendations, the investigation served to show that the West stood with the protesters and had not ignored their sacrifices in the cause of freedom.

For me, the déjà vu continued on Sept. 17, when U.S. Ambassador James Gilmore and other ambassadors again invoked the OSCE investigative mechanism to look into Lukashenko’s brutality against his own people. But the similarities to 2010 end there.

No doubt Lukashenko again expected people to stay home after this most recent show of brute force. But this time there was a major difference. In an extraordinary show of courage and solidarity, the protests have grown much, much larger. Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians turn out in the streets to demand new elections and the release of all those imprisoned for exercising their rights.

The protests are not only in the streets. Thousands of workers at state-owned factories, disgusted with Lukashenko’s actions, have gone on strike. Journalists and technicians at state-run media have walked off the job, as have many civil servants. Civil disobedience has extended to a boycott of state institutions, and many private companies are refusing to do business with state-owned banks.

While the neighboring countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania imposed sanctions early on against 30 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko, the U.S. and Europe were only able to produce a coordinated response almost two months after the election. Most Western leaders have been cautious not to give Vladimir Putin any excuse to intervene militarily in Belarus, as he did in 2014 in Ukraine.

Putin, on the other hand, has gone all in to support Lukashenko. He sees Belarus as part of Moscow’s sphere of influence. There’s even a “union treaty,” creating some common political institutions. While Lukashenko has irritated Moscow frequently by courting the West to gain more leverage, Lukashenko is the devil Putin knows. What he likely fears most is another “color revolution” to overthrow a Russian ally and fellow authoritarian regime.

So he has placed a big bet on Lukashenko. While Western countries stay on the sidelines, Putin has provided material support and promised more, if needed. When journalists refused to continue working for state media, Russia sent two planeloads of journalists to take their place and fill the airwaves with pro-Lukashenko (and pro-Russian) propaganda. In a meeting with Lukashenko in Sochi on Sept. 14, Putin offered a $1.5 billion loan to fill Minsk’s budget gaps. Putin also has promised to provide Russian “law enforcement units” to put down protests if they turn violent.

Putin has placed a mistaken bet on the Belarusian dictator. As opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has said, Belarus has “passed the point of no return … and Lukashenko has no political future.” 

We have to stand by the brave Belarusian people. As Tikhanovskaya has said, information access is the lifeblood of their efforts, and we can help ensure continuous access to social media and the internet, providing them with the technical means to do so. We can help crowd-fund striking workers who are deprived of income. We can give them personal protection equipment to keep them safe from the coronavirus pandemic while they exercise their rights to protest. And we can make it clear that we consider the Minsk regime illegitimate by conducting business with Tikhanovskaya and her colleagues, and not Lukashenko.

The future of Belarus and the stability of Europe depend on the ability of the people to determine their future. Violence and repression must not succeed again. We should do all we can to support the people of Belarus who, at great risk to themselves, are struggling to ensure a just and democratic outcome. 

Ian Kelly is ambassador (ret.) in residence at Northwestern University who most recently served as the U.S. ambassador to Georgia from 2015 to 2018. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) from 2010 to 2013. He held several high-level positions at the State Department, including as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s spokesperson (2009-2010).  

Editor’s note: This piece was edited after publication to clarify the sanctions imposed.

Tags Alexander Lukashenko Belarus Belarusian protests Election fraud Hillary Clinton Russia Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Vladimir Putin

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