U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent-Connecticut) is one of the leading voices in Washington's condemnation of Minsk's crackdown on protesters after December's presidential election.
The violent reaction by authorities to pro-democracy activists has resulted in U.S. and EU sanctions against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime, and in an exclusive interview, the director of RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Alexander Lukashuk, asked Lieberman about how the West views Lukashenka and how it might deal with him going forward.
RFE/RL: You'll soon be traveling to Europe to attend the Munich Security Conference, but your first stop will be in Vilnius, where you'll be meeting with students and activists from neighboring Belarus. What do you want to accomplish in Vilnius?
Joseph Lieberman: For years now, Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and I have been leading a bipartisan delegation from the Congress to the Munich Security Conference, and each year we try to stop somewhere where we hope we'll learn something and perhaps be able to make a constructive difference. And we felt very strongly that we wanted to go to Vilnius this year to discuss the situation in Belarus.
We're going to meet with students at the European Humanities University, also members of the political opposition and civil society, and with Lithuanian leaders, too. We want to hear directly from Belarusians who are there in Vilnius about the crackdowns in their country since December 19 and what we in the West can best do to help them. And frankly, we want to tell them -- the Belarusian opposition -- that we're with them. We stand with them in the cause of freedom and [say], "Don't lose hope."
RFE/RL: In the recent article that you and Senator John Kerry (Democrat -Massachusetts) wrote for "The Washington Post," you say that a new approach is needed for dealing with the Belarusian regime. Can you describe what that new approach might be?
Lieberman: Senator Kerry and I reached a conclusion which is not hard to reach -- that the strategy of engagement with Lukashenka that the United States and the EU followed for the last few years has failed. It has failed miserably, as seen by Lukashenka's actions. And what we need now is for the U.S. and the EU to, one, make clear that Lukashenka's autocratic leadership is no longer acceptable, and two, to do whatever we can, beginning with targeted economic sanctions, to put pressure on Lukashenka and the people around him to change their behavior.
Also, [we need] to increase our material and technical support to the Belarusian opposition and to civil society there. In that sense, I'm encouraged that we actually have begun to take this new policy toward Belarus with the announcement on [January 31] by the U.S. and the EU that we would be increasing our sanctions on Lukashenka's regime and also stepping up our democracy assistance to the people of Belarus.
RFE/RL: The EU has introduced a visa ban on Belarusian officials in the wake of the crackdown, but it abstained from enacting economic sanctions against Minsk. Many in the opposition feel disappointed and betrayed by that. You and Senator Kerry urged the European Union to join the United States in blocking any business with Belarusian oil and petrochemical companies. When you meet with European leaders in Munich, is this an issue you'll be raising with them? What do you plan to tell them?
Lieberman: Yes, this is absolutely an issue that I, and I believe my colleagues from the U.S. Congress, will be raising with our colleagues from the European Union. I was pleased that the EU has introduced a visa ban on the officials of Belarus. I can't say I was surprised, but I was disappointed that there were no economic sanctions applied.
Obviously, we're going to be arguing that the European Union change that point of view because the fact is that Lukashenka and the people around him make an enormous amount of money from the oil and petrochemical companies that we hoped would be part of the sanctions. And that money keeps this dictatorial regime afloat, so we think it's important to go after the money and make it harder for the Lukashenka regime to enrich itself at the expense of the people of Belarus.
RFE/RL: Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have criticized the current crackdown in Belarus but have also criticized the West's sanctions against Minsk. Many in Belarus are suspicious of Moscow for its role in supporting Lukashenka's regime in the past or see the Kremlin's policy toward Belarus as a threat to Belarusian independence. Do you see any role for Moscow in Belarus?
Lieberman: Well, first, I totally understand and agree with the people in Belarus who are suspicious of Moscow, both for its role in supporting Lukashenka in the past and also for its aggressive outreach beyond Russian borders.
We know that Lukashenka's strategy has featured playing Russia and the West off each other, and I think it's not in the interest of either Moscow or Washington or Brussels to let Lukashenka get away with that. So I hope we can figure out a way for the three centers of power -- the U.S., the EU, and Russia -- to come together with a better approach toward Lukashenka.
But obviously, in the end -- I'm convinced this is also the feeling of the U.S. government -- that the future of Belarus must be decided by the people of Belarus themselves through a fair and free democratic process.
RFE/RL: The current revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East has left some in Belarus fearful that the United States will forget about them. Others, to the contrary, are hopeful that that will happen. Will Belarus remain on Washington's radar?
Lieberman: Oh, yes, indeed. Look, our values are at stake here. I always feel that the U.S. was created and defined at its birth in 1776 not by its geographic borders but our values: from the Declaration of Independence, the self-evident truth that we're all created equal and endowed by our creator with those rights to life and liberty. They're on the line in Belarus.
And the very fact that Senator McCain and I are coming with a large bipartisan delegation to Vilnius should say to people in Belarus that you are on our screens and we're not going to forget you. We know both your names -- those of you who are heroes for freedom -- and we know the names of your oppressors, and we won't forget them either.
RFE/RL: You announced last month that you will be retiring from the U.S. Senate next year. What one lesson from your own political life would you share with people who are fighting for democracy but have so far been unsuccessful?
Lieberman: Thanks for the way that you asked that question -- that I'm retiring from the Senate and not retiring altogether. I hope that as long as I'm alive to be standing with people like the opposition in Belarus who are fighting for freedom because that's our mission.
What lesson would I give? I'd say to remember what Churchill said, which is to never, never, never give up -- that though the going is tough when you're facing a powerful regime, the arc of history always bends toward freedom. It takes too much time sometimes, but don't give up, don't lose hope, and always know that the people of the United States are with you and we will continue to be with you until the people of Belarus achieve genuine freedom.