One year ago, the world held its breath amid signs that one of Europe’s last dictators finally might be on the way out. But that’s not what happened. Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko employed massive levels of fraud to rig presidential polls and prolong a nearly three-decade rule. He since has overseen an increasingly violent campaign against his country’s democratic opposition, civil society and independent media. Given Lukashenko’s growing repression, the U.S. must continue to respond by matching tough talk with strong action: applying steadfast pressure, promoting the cause of Belarus’s democrats, and providing possibility to its peaceful movement for change.
Belarus is once again front-page news following waning coverage. Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya defied team orders to fly home after a public dispute, vowing she would never return to Belarus because she feared for her life. That followed a recent White House visit by the leader of the Belarussian democratic movement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who shared an inspiring vision for a new Belarus, in which she outlined constitutional, economic and judicial reform for her country.
Belarus’ return to the headlines is a positive development, but it comes amid an inauspicious anniversary — and an even more ominous moment. Today, even the slightest association with the democratic movement can become grounds for arrest; this includes wearing the wrong color socks. Belarusians are understandably more afraid to gather peacefully in the streets to protest. Yet, they continue to advance the cause of liberty in any way they can: through neighborhood activism, virtual advocacy or campaigning for change internationally.
Belarus’s democratic movement is becoming a longer-term struggle for change — but it faces an intransigent opponent.
Lukashenko will not give in easily. He is intent on prolonging his power no matter the cost in freedom or blood. In case the now-infamous episode of seizing a Ryanair jet carrying a dissident journalist was not proof enough, Lukashenko’s regime is launching further purges of civic groups. Belarusian authorities are targeting them for “liquidation” — an ominous reminder of Lukashenko’s perpetuation of some of the worst methods of his Soviet predecessors.
The eyes of the world are on the many nations committed to human rights and the cause of Belarus’s democrats — the U.S. foremost amongst them. President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE recently stated to Congress his determination to “meet the central challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable and strong.” “The autocrats will not win the future,” he promised. “America will.”
Times like this are when we must prove it.
Last year’s passage of the bipartisan Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act sent a strong first signal that the United States would pair strong statements on Belarus with strong actions. Thus far, it largely has done so. The U.S. has applied more and more pressure through sanctions imposed on individuals and entities responsible for falsifying the results of the election and the ongoing repressions against peaceful protestors, activists and the leadership of the democratic opposition, most of whom are in jail or forced exile.
Now, the committed resources in that legislation must be quickly appropriated and dispensed to those on the front lines of democracy — men and women who look to the U.S. as a source of hope as they toil with one of the last vestiges of the Soviet empire. The U.S. also should move to maximize the costs on Minsk in other ways. For example, it should impose sanctions against the petroleum, chemical and steel sectors that provide about one-third of Belarus’s exports and badly needed revenue for the regime. Similarly, the U.S. should pursue sanctions on the state-controlled financial sector and place a ban on the regime’s access to international capital markets.
Aleksander Lukashenko has proven his determination to stay on, no matter the cost. Russia similarly has demonstrated its intention to continue to provide him with massive loans to sustain the regime. Now the U.S. and its partners must prove that their continued determination is even stronger.
To ensure that autocracy will not triumph in Belarus, Washington must persist in its strategy of pressure, promotion and possibility in support of the democratic movement. It must signal to the Belarusian people and the world its ongoing commitment to meeting the center challenge of our age — pairing strong words with strong support for those fighting for the basic civil and human rights we take for granted each day.
Mark Dietzen is the resident program director for Belarus at the International Republican Institute.