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Can Belarusians Count On More Support From Biden?

Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk in February.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka (left) meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk in February.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said little about Belarus since voters, angry over an election they say was stolen, took to the streets three months ago and were met with a violent crackdown by the forces of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's government. Joe Biden has called the man in power for over a quarter-century an illegitimate leader who "tortures his own people."

What could Biden's presidency mean for Belarus, where the opposition and many of the country's 9.5 million people are locked in a showdown with Lukashenka, who is holding onto power with Russian support?

Belarus has been gripped by protests since the official results of an August 9 vote handed Lukashenka a landslide win and a sixth straight term in a presidential election condemned by opponents and the West as rigged. Crowds of demonstrators calling for his resignation have swelled beyond 100,000 at times, and the opposition has sought to mount a nationwide strike.

Thousands of protesters have been arrested, some beaten by police and security forces on the streets and in detention, while many of the movement's leaders were forced to flee the country or jailed for months in the government crackdown.

The European Union, the United States, and other countries have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader while slapping sanctions on Belarusian officials over their roles in the disputed election and the violent crackdown.

Brussels and Washington have also fostered closer ties with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader who supporters claim was the true winner of the August election.

However, critics have accused the West, and in particular the United States, of doing too little to help Lukashenka's opponents or punish the authoritarian leader.

The U.S. approach could change substantially in a Biden administration. During the campaign, the former vice president promised to "significantly expand" sanctions alongside European allies against "Lukashenka's henchmen," and suggested Trump was going easy on an "illegitimate autocrat."

"Biden would be more outspoken on behalf of the demonstrators and work more closely with European allies," Kenneth Yalowitz, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s, said in e-mail comments to RFE/RL.

In contrast to the current administration, and particularly Trump himself, Biden has been more vocal on events in Belarus.

"No leader who tortures his own people can ever claim legitimacy.... I will continue to join Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the people of Belarus in calling for the peaceful transfer of power, the release of all political prisoners, and free and fair elections so the Belarusian people are finally able to exercise the democratic rights for which they have sacrificed so much," Biden said in a statement on October 27.

"I would expect that this statement offers a good guide to how a Biden presidency would deal with Belarus," said Steven Pifer, a longtime former U.S. diplomat who held talks in Minsk in the early 2000s when he was deputy assistant secretary of state.

Joe Biden speaks to supporters after the media announced that he had won the U.S. presidential election over Donald Trump, in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7.
Joe Biden speaks to supporters after the media announced that he had won the U.S. presidential election over Donald Trump, in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7.

Biden has also vowed that his "administration will never shy away from standing up for democratic principles and human rights" and accused Trump of remaining silent on the actions of Lukashenka, whom he described as a "weak, illegitimate autocrat."

Policy toward Belarus would also be colored by Biden's stated interest in protecting human rights abroad, something that Trump has rarely spoken of.

Human Rights

"Biden would restore a global U.S. focus on human rights, largely absent under Trump," said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Closer coordination with the EU could also be in the offing, analysts say.

The EU and the United States both placed visa bans and asset freezes on 40 Belarusian officials alleged to have been involved in voter fraud and the suppression of the opposition.

But that decision was made on October 2, nearly two months after the disputed election. And Lukashenka himself was left off the blacklist, apparently to give him time to hold dialogue with his opponents -- an opportunity he has largely ignored.

Trump administration officials have joined European countries in reaching out to Tsikhanouskaya, who fled to Lithuania under severe state pressure shortly after the vote.

On August 24, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun met with Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius and seemed careful not to promise too much from Washington, saying he wanted "to hear what the thinking of the Belarusian people is and to see what they are doing to obtain the right to self-determination."

"The United States cannot and will not decide the course of events in Belarus," he added.

On October 24, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by telephone with Lukashenka, pressing for the release of detained U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov and reaffirming "U.S. support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus," according to the State Department.

According to Hanna Baraban, a Belarusian political analyst, the tone and content of such statements has signaled to Belarusians challenging Lukashenka that the turmoil in their country does not rate high with Washington.

"The rhetoric of the president of the United States on the situation in Belarus has been quite moderate in its condemnation. Also, and this is symbolic, it took the authorities 1 1/2 months after the first wave of violence to reject the election results on September 24," Baraban said, noting that that came a day after Lukashenka shut down the Internet in Minsk, closed off streets, and deployed troops as he held his unannounced inauguration in secret.

On November 6, the EU added Lukashenka and 14 other officials to its sanctions list. The Trump administration has not indicated so far whether it would follow suit.

The Russia Factor

Analysts say that further sanctions, including on Lukashenka, are an option Biden might pursue.

"Biden could, preferably in coordination with the European Union, apply additional sanctions on Belarus," said Pifer, now a fellow at Stanford University.

Looming over any possible action a Biden administration may take is Russia.

Moscow has handed Lukashenka a $1.5 billion lifeline and has spoken of providing military and security backing if need be, while supporting unsubstantiated claims that the Belarusian opposition is being funded by foreign powers and echoing Lukashenka's claims -- also without evidence -- that the West could be plotting a "color revolution."

"Moscow has more leverage in Minsk than does the West. The question will be whether the Kremlin wants to continue to tie itself to Lukashenka, which risks alienating the Belarusian people, who -- for now -- are largely favorably inclined toward Russia," Pifer said.

Under Biden, the United States may continue to face a delicate balancing act between determination to support the will of the Belarusian people and turning the country into a Cold War-style battleground between Moscow and the West, analysts say.

Yalowitz said that Biden, who is expected to be tougher on Russia than Trump, will need to coordinate carefully with Europe on Belarus. "Neither wants to see this become a U.S.-Russian issue and both will favor a Belarusian solution leading to Lukashenka's presidency ending," he said.

Months Away

A tougher U.S. stance against Lukashenka could make him even more reliant on the Kremlin, potentially strengthening Moscow's levers of influence. Many analysts say that President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, while it is not wedded to Lukashenka and could withdraw support if it saw fit, is determined to keep Belarus in its orbit and maintain powerful influence.

"For the current Belarusian regime, Biden represents a huge moral threat. If Trump's distant approach is predictable and satisfactory for Lukashenka, Biden's position is an obvious threat to his political survival," Baraban said. "That is why I believe that Joe Biden winning the Oval Office will at once put official Minsk on the defensive and will push it deeper into the arms of Russia."

Another factor to consider is time. The U.S. president elected in November takes office on January 20.

"A lot can happen in Belarus in that time," Pifer noted.

As for what Tsikhanouskaya is hoping for from Washington, she told Current Time on November 4 -- when the outcome of the U.S. election was still unclear -- that she wanted "the maximum support for the Belarusian people," without naming Biden nor Trump.

"I would like democratic countries to pay even more attention to how human rights are being limited in Belarus, to the violence taking place in our country, so that they talk about it and take all possible appropriate measures," she told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, adding that the fate of the country was in the hands of Belarusians.

"We need to understand that the responsibility for Belarus lies only with the Belarusians themselves," Tsikhanouskaya said. "Whether or not the leader of any country decides to support Belarusians in their struggle for a democratic future is their choice."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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