Biden and Belarus: A strategy for the new administration

People take part in a protest against the presidential election results demanding the resignation of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and the release of political prisoners, in Minsk, Belarus August 16, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

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Executive summary

United States President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has an historic opportunity to bring Europe together and reverse the tide of dictatorship by building an international coalition to support democracy in Belarus. In 2020, Belarusians unexpectedly called Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s legitimacy into question in the country’s August presidential election. Lukashenka brazenly rigged the results, claiming that he took 80 percent of the vote, but neither the United States nor the European Union (EU) recognizes his victory. A months-long protest movement has coalesced that demands new elections under the supervision of the international community.

Recent years have seen no better chance for US leadership to facilitate lasting positive change in Europe than the crisis in Belarus. But how to secure democratic change in Belarus is not simple given internal resistance
and Moscow’s determination to prevent another “color revolution.”

Lukashenka is likely finished, unable to restore any authority or legitimacy. But he is seeking to hang on despite Moscow’s efforts to arrange a pliable replacement who would preserve Minsk’s pro-Russian orientation. Managing Moscow’s efforts to prevent an aroused citizenry from choosing their own leader is no easy task. Russia remains the key geopolitical player in Belarus, often plays the long game, and may be willing to countenance military options that the United States cannot.

Perhaps the key fact is that Belarusians have made it amply clear that they want accountable leaders that they can choose and dismiss for themselves. More than thirty thousand peaceful protesters have been detained since August, more than three hundred and fifty police officers have defected, and ordinary Belarusians are no longer afraid to voice their opposition to the regime. Kremlin support for the ongoing repression risks turning the Belarusian people—historically friendly toward Russia—in a pro-European direction. These changes in Belarus are something that Moscow cannot ignore, and the United States and its allies must nourish and strengthen them in consistent ways that avoid and deter a Kremlin overreaction. Biden, with his long experience promoting US values and interests and his determination to strengthen transatlantic relations, is ideally situated to promote clear support for the people of Belarus that does not directly challenge Moscow’s security interests.

Key recommendations

To promote the growth of the democratic movement in Belarus, strengthen the current opposition leader, and weaken support for Lukashenka:

  • Biden should meet with Tsikhanouskaya within his first 100 days as President of the United States
  • Biden should designate a senior official to coordinate sanctions with the EU, the UK, and Canada.
  • Biden should sign an executive order on Belarus that would sanction hundreds of Belarusian officials who violate human rights to serve as a deterrent against further escalation of repression. We can provide a list for consideration.
  • The United States should refer to Lukashenka as the former president of Belarus. US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher should take up her post in Minsk and visit Vilnius as appropriate but not present her credentials to Lukashenka.
  • The United States should sanction companies that handle Lukashenka’s private finances.
  • The United States should threaten Russian companies and businessmen with sanctions in case they take over Belarusian companies or support Lukashenka’s regime financially or politically. The United States should also sanction Russian media and journalists participating in propaganda campaigns against the Belarus protest movement.
  • Congress should give specific guidance to the State Department that it spend no less than $200 million annually on civil society and media support for Belarus.
  • Congress should double the budget of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Belarus Service, which is overseen by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). In addition, Congress and the leadership of the USAGM and RFE/RL should speak out forcefully when RFE/RL journalists are detained in Belarus and demand their immediate release.
  • The secretary of state should designate a senior official to oversee all assistance to Belarus and report on it quarterly to Congress.
  • The United States (along with the EU) should send humanitarian assistance to the opposition by channels that actually reach them in Belarus.
  • The secretary of state should facilitate and encourage the unconditional release of and amnesty for all political prisoners, urge the cessation of violence, and insist on an inclusive national dialogue to solve the political crisis in Belarus and then hold free and fair elections.
  • The United States should use its power in international organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN, to ensure their active participation in solving the Belarus crisis by mediating the dialogue, creating additional pressure on the regime, and collecting evidence of crimes to eventually bring the perpetrators to justice.

To manage the Russian reaction to developments in Belarus with a view to preventing a Kremlin crackdown:

  • The Biden administration should privately caution the opposition to avoid any signal suggesting its interest in joining the EU or NATO and publicly explain its position in Belarus as only supporting the right of the people of Belarus to choose their own leader and future.
  • Along with the EU, the Biden administration should maintain regular diplomatic dialogue with Moscow, stressing that the ongoing protest movement is only about Belarus’s domestic politics, not geopolitics. The initial aims are an immediate end to the repression, release of prisoners, and the launch of a genuine, inclusive political dialogue that can lay the basis for new, internationally supervised elections.
  • The Biden administration should draw a clear line on conditional sanctions: Moscow should understand clearly that it will face additional sanctions if it sends security forces (overtly or covertly, including military or personnel support) to Belarus to prop up Lukashenka or crack down on Belarusian protesters.

These three recommendations on managing the Kremlin’s reaction are a package and must be carried out together. It would be disastrous to accommodate the Kremlin by discouraging Belarus from turning to the EU while not establishing clear redlines against Moscow’s potential intervention in Belarus.

This full strategy paper examines US interests, the domestic situation in Belarus, Moscow’s dilemma, and the many ways the West can influence the situation.

Authors

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.