Pressure builds on US to respond to brutal crackdown in Belarus

The U.S. is under increasing pressure to respond to a brutal crackdown on pro-Democracy protesters in Belarus demonstrating against a presidential election that handed another victory to a leader who has been in power for more than 25 years.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has called the election of President Alexander Lukashenka “not free” and “not fair,” has signaled that the U.S. is looking to the European Union in how they will respond to the violence in Belarus, where at least two people were killed, hundreds injured by security forces and chilling reports of mass detentions and torture.

But the U.S. and the E.U. are unlikely to take any steps to try to remove Lukashenka, who claimed more than 80 percent of the vote.

Despite being commonly referred to as “Europe’s Last Dictator,” the E.U. and the U.S. see Lukashenka’s reign as preventing Belarus from spiraling into chaos that would give Russian President Vladimir Putin an opening to send Russian forces to impose authority.

“The possibility of Russian military intervention if Lukashenko is removed or can’t restore order is VERY real,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned on Twitter.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Friday that the E.U. would impose sanctions on “those responsible for violence and falsification” of election results.

“Belarus: EU doesn’t accept election results. Work begins on sanctioning those responsible for violence & falsification,” Borrell tweeted.

European officials had earlier called for an immediate end to the violence, the release of thousands of detained protesters and a national dialogue to resolve the fraudulent elections.

Pompeo has echoed those calls.

“Our views are the same about what has transpired,” he said Friday at a press conference in Vienna, alongside the Austrian foreign minister. “I think the world collectively will respond to this in a way that I hope leads to better outcomes for the Belarusian people.”

Considered one of the last relics of the former Soviet Union, Lukashenka, 65, had in recent years turned away from a close relationship with Moscow after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and launched an incursion into the eastern part of that country.

“Lukashenka became much more nationalistic, independent minded after 2014, and the relationship with Russia has been rather strained since then,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, who was U.S. ambassador to Belarus from 1994 to 1997. “He and Putin do not get along very well.”

This provided an opening for Europe and the U.S. to engage more closely with Lukashenka, who came to power in 1994.

Pompeo traveled to Minsk in February and announced the U.S. would take steps to improve relations between the two countries, with a commitment to exchange ambassadors, facilitate the delivery of an American oil shipment and encourage Belarus’s turn away from Russia.

“Lukashenka has performed a useful function — we may not like him as a dictator,” said Thane Gustafson, a professor on Russian affairs at Georgetown University.

“But broadly, the unstated policy of the European Union and the United States has been to hold our noses and not raise issues so long as Belarus is quiet.”

That’s looking increasingly difficult as human rights groups raise the alarm over brutally repressive tactics against civilians.

Amnesty International said there is “mounting evidence of a campaign of widespread torture of peaceful protesters.”

“Former detainees told us that detention centres have become torture chambers, where protesters are forced to lie in the dirt while police kick and beat them with truncheons,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement.

“They described being stripped naked and subjected to sadistic beatings while listening to the screams of other victims. These are people whose only ‘crime’ was to take to the streets in peaceful protest. What we are seeing in Belarus is a human rights catastrophe that demands urgent action.”

The protests occurring in Belarus are unlike any the country has seen before.

“Belarus had its fair share of the rigged elections and failed protests, but this time the situation feels different,” said Oksana Antonenko, director for global risks analysis with the consultancy firm Control Risks Group. “High levels of popular mobilization across the entire country, partly sparked by authorities’ mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, means that the protests will not just fizzle out over time.”

Much of that has to do with the uniting of a fractured opposition behind one candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher who entered the presidential race after the jailing of her then-candidate husband.

She fled Belarus under duress after the elections, taking refuge in neighboring Lithuania. In a video statement posted Friday, she called for peaceful protests to continue and for citizens to demand a vote recount, Reuters reported. The initial tally, which she has rejected, gave her less than 10 percent of the votes.

“Belarusians in the past have sort of been known for political passivity. And they’ve pretty much destroyed that image,” said Yalowitz, the former ambassador.

But even with the widespread opposition, Yalowitz doesn’t think an overthrow of Lukashenka is likely, given that it appears he still retains control of security forces.

“So far the security forces seem to be willing to obey his command. That is going to be the crucial dimension,” he said.

“When authoritarians are overthrown it’s usually because they’ve lost control of security forces.”

A cause for further concern among Western democracies is whether Lukashenka takes this moment to turn back toward Russia. Putin was one of the first leaders to congratulate Lukashenka after the most recent election.

In a sign of easing tensions between the two countries, Russia’s prosecutor general on Friday said Minsk had released 32 members of the Russian mercenary Wagner group back to Moscow. The group was earlier arrested on charges of threatening the Belarusian elections.

Margarita Balmaceda, professor of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University, said that was a risky move on the part of Lukashenka, who has historically tried to hold a delicate balance between Moscow and the West.

“Belarusian independence and Belarussian sovereignty are key for Lukashenka because he wants to be the person in charge,” she said. “I find this very problematic and I’m not sure whether he will succeed in having that support from Moscow without having to make more concessions than he may want.”

Balmaceda added that the protesters against Lukashenka may not be anti-Russian, and some of their frustration comes from their leader’s waffling on relations.

Either way, she said, the masses in the streets are something to behold.

“They have shown through history a tremendous level of resilience and we need to be encouraged by the fact that people are coming out and showing their commitment to democratic values,” Balmaceda said. “I think this is a positive step that tells us that once there will be a real political change, we can expect further positive developments.”

Tags Belarus demonstrations Elections EU Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Protests Russia Vladimir Putin

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