Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on the United States to put more pressure on authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka by expanding sanctions to bring maximum pressure on the Belarusian regime and force it to answer the opposition’s calls for dialogue.
Tsikhanouskaya, speaking on March 17 to the U.S. House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee, said the additional sanctions should target judges, state-owned enterprises, security officers, oligarchs, and educational and sports officials.
“You have to put sanctions on those…'wallets' of Lukashenka that support the regime,” Tsikhanouskaya said during the videoconference hearing.
This includes oil and gas enterprises, she said, urging Congress to “strike at the regime’s most important benefactors and primary sources of resilience.”
Tsikhanouskaya was invited to testify about the pro-democracy movement in Belarus and in particular the role women have played.
She recounted some of the stories of the “brave women of Belarus” who have stood up to the regime – sometimes standing in front of men to guard them from security forces – in almost daily protests since the August 9 presidential election in which Tsikhanouskaya ran after her husband was jailed while trying to mount his own campaign.
She and her supporters say she was the rightful winner, but Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory. The protests that began immediately afterward have demanded new elections, the release of people detained during protests, and a dialogue with the government.
But Tsikhanouskaya said they have not been enough.
“Lukashenka still has the resources to retain power,” Tsikhanouskaya said. “So, the United States should insist on stopping the violence, releasing the political prisoners, restoring the rule of law, and launching a genuine dialogue between the legitimate representatives of Belarusians and the regime.”
The people of Belarus need the help immediately “because people are suffering now in this very moment in jails and on the ground,” she said. “This is urgent help.”
According to Tsikhanouskaya, 32,000 people have been detained, 2,500 criminal cases have been initiated, 1,000 cases of torture have been documented by human rights NGOs, and 290 people currently are held as political prisoners. At least eight protesters have been killed, she said, and no government officials have been held accountable for any of the violence.
Western countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader and have slapped him and senior Belarusian officials with sanctions in response to the “falsification” of the vote and the postelection crackdown.
The U.S. State Department in February imposed visa restrictions on 43 other Belarusian individuals, including people in the justice sector, law enforcement leaders and officers who detained and abused peaceful demonstrators, and judges and prosecutors involved in sentencing protesters and journalists.
But Tsikhanouskaya said those sanctions have not been effective because the individuals know how to avoid the sanctions” and don’t have the kind of assets targeted, such as U.S. bank accounts.
She urged Congress to increase sanctions on judges in particular because this will cause them to “think twice before making a judgment against peaceful demonstration.”
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
Members of the committee commended Tsikhanouskaya, who delivered her testimony from Lithuania, where she relocated for security reasons, and other women for their courage in standing up to the regime.
Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (Republican-Pennsylvania) said Tsikhanouskaya and other protesters had “stared down overwhelming odds and lit a fire to a renewed democratic spirit” in Belarus. He said Tsikhanouskaya and thousands of women like her had proved to their country and the world that “the future is in their able hands.”
Tsikhanouskaya also noted that a new wave of protests is planned to start on March 25, the day unofficially marked each year as Dzen Voli (Freedom Day) to honor the anniversary of the short-lived Belarusian People's Republic, which existed for less than a year in 1918.
She urged members of the committee to raise awareness of the protests through social media and any other means.
“International support is extremely important,” she said. “We have to know that the whole world is watching us and that we are not alone.”