WASHINGTON -- Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya has called on U.S. lawmakers to materially support the Belarusian democracy movement abroad and tighten sanctions on authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a push for a clear U.S. strategy for her country.
The Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.
In testimony on Capitol Hill on December 5, Tsikhanouskaya also asked U.S. lawmakers to urge the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Lukashenka for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Belarus and back more military aid to Kyiv, saying her nation’s freedom hinges on Ukraine defeating Russia.
Tsikhanouskaya's visit to Washington comes as Congress is embroiled in debate over a bill that would send billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, raising questions how much bandwidth lawmakers and the White House have for Belarus right now. She sought to hammer home that supporting the Belarus opposition is in the U.S. national interest.
"Supporting free Belarus is not charity. It's your investment into the global peace and security," she told lawmakers, using the same pitch that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered to Congress nearly a year ago as he sought more U.S. aid for his country's fight against Russia.
Tsikhanouskaya asked lawmakers to "provide material assistance" to the Belarusian opposition, their family members, and media. She said members of the Belarusian opposition living abroad, including herself, are paying a “big price” for their dogged pursuit of democracy and “we can’t do it alone.”
Belarusian authorities last week raided about 200 homes belonging to members of the government in exile and their family. The authorities said they would seek to expropriate property. Relatives of several members of the government in exile, including Tsikhanouskaya's husband, are in prison.
She said the opposition needs money to counter the vast resources Russia spends on propaganda and disinformation in Belarus as well as to help its members who have suffered terribly under Lukashenka.
There are about 1,500 political prisoners in Belarus, according to the U.S. State Department, most of whom were jailed following mass demonstrations to protest the declared outcome of the August 2020 election. Lukashenka claimed to defeat Tsikhanouskaya with 80 percent in a vote the opposition called rigged. Tsikhanouskaya and other leading members of the opposition fled Belarus to avoid persecution along with thousands of other citizens.
Belarus treats political prisoners harshly, and those exiting now are in "awful physical and emotional state," Tsikhanouskaya said.
"These people need rehabilitation and we need to support the organization of rehabilitation programs so people do not feel that they have been abandoned" after risking their lives for democracy, she told the lawmakers.
Representative Bill Keating (Democrat-Massachusetts) told the hearing that Congress had appropriated $30 million for Belarusian civil society and democracy.
Tsikhanouskaya also called on lawmakers to expand sanctions to include Belarusian wood and steel and to close loopholes that allow Lukashenka to circumvent existing sanctions.
As Tsikhanouskaya testified, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a raft of sanctions targeting several entities and individuals that it said generate revenue for Lukashenka and support Russia's war in Ukraine. The sanctions also target the head of the Belarus Red Cross, accusing him of being complicit in the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Tsikhanouskaya accused the Lukashenka regime of accepting about 2,000 children from Russian-occupied Ukraine. She said the opposition has sent "tons of proof" to the ICC and, lamenting that no action had been taken yet, she asked Congress to push the ICC to open an investigation.
The ICC earlier this year issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian commissioner for children's rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
"People have to feel that dictators shouldn't feel impunity for their crimes," she told the lawmakers.
Envoy, Ukraine Aid
Tsikhanouskaya is visiting Washington with other members of the Belarusian exiled government to take part in a new initiative organized by the State Department that seeks to coordinate various U.S. government efforts aimed at supporting the Belarusian democratic movement.
The so-called Strategic Dialogue will take place December 6-7 at the State Department and include members of Belarusian civil society and human rights defenders.
She said she hopes the dialogue will lead to a clear U.S. strategy for Belarus, including its place in a post-Ukraine war security architecture.
Tsikhanouskaya also told Congress she wants the White House to appoint a special envoy for Belarus to help be a “bridge” between the opposition and the U.S. government and to help coordinate a whole-of-government strategy toward Belarus.
“We need to clearly understand what will be the future steps of the U.S. [government] and that's why we need this person,” she told lawmakers.
Tsikhanouskaya urged Congress to approve more military aid for Kyiv, saying the fate of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined.
Congress has been unable to pass new aid for Ukraine for months as Republicans tie the shipment of weapons to Kyiv with border security and U.S. immigration reform. The White House on December 4 warned that current aid to Ukraine will run out by the end of the month if a new bill isn't passed.
“Without a free Ukraine, there will be no free Belarus but also vice versa. We have to remember that without a free, independent Belarus, there will be a constant threat to the security of the whole region of Europe. So help Ukraine to win this war.”