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Belarus's Beleaguered Opposition Seeks U.S. Support. What Are The Options?

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya (left) meets with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on July 28.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya made clear that she saw her meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on July 28 as crucially important, thanking him for a "powerful sign of solidarity with millions of fearless Belarusians who are peacefully fighting for their freedom."

Tsikhanouskaya has been in the United States since July 18 to drum up support for her pro-democracy movement amid intense pressure from authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The Belarusian strongman has shown no signs of relenting on a crackdown that intensified after an August 2020 election that millions of voters suspect he stole.

She has held talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland as well as the U.S. national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Tsikhanouskaya also attended the launch of the Friends of Belarus Caucus in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress.

"She has had a very successful visit, meeting the Secretary of State, [the] NSC (National Security Council) advisor, key senators, and the major press and media outlets. Also, a Belarus Caucus was set up in the House," Ken Yalowitz, who was a U.S. ambassador to Belarus in the 1990s, told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.

Belarusian Opposition Leader: Biden 'Not Indifferent' To Belarus
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In her talks in Washington, Tsikhanouskaya urged the United States to guarantee the independence of Belarus. She also called for tougher U.S. sanctions targeting industries that fund Lukashenka, and the Wall Street Journal has reported that Washington was mulling more sanctions.

The United States and the European Union have hit Lukashenka, government officials, cronies, and entities with sanctions. The latest of a total of four rounds came in June, a month after Belarus forced a commercial flight to divert to Minsk to arrest a blogger, an incident, described by many as a "state-sponsored hijacking."

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What next? Some analysts say that, at least for now, Washington has few options to influence events in Belarus or to impose game-changing pressure on Lukashenka, who is widely seen as being more dependent on neighboring Russia than ever.

"The first thing is to moderate its ambitions and understand that it's extremely limited in what it can do, with regard both to helping Belarus's democratic opposition and to further pressuring Lukashenka," said Chris Tooke, associate director at GPW, a political risk consultancy.

He noted that Belarus did not seem to figure prominently in talks between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit in Geneva on June 16.

Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)
Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

Belarus was thrown into turmoil after Lukashenka, in power since 1994, claimed a landslide victory in the August 2020 election, which opponents, Western governments, and many Belarusians charge was badly rigged in his favor.

Tskihanouskaya, whose campaign was marked by unprecedented crowds of people eager for change, received 10 percent of the vote according to the official tally, but no election in Belarus since 1994 has been deemed free, fair, and democratic by Western observers and her backers claim she was the real winner.

Massive protests erupted and the state responded with a severe crackdown. More than 32,000 people have been detained and many opposition leaders have been locked up or forced to flee, including Tsikhanouskaya, who left for Lithuania a day after the August 9 election. Media and NGOs have been targeted -- especially so in recent weeks -- in raids and arrests and observers say Lukashenka, 66, seems bent on rubbing out resistance to his rule.

The Sanctions Option

During her talks in Washington, Tsikhanouskaya said she handed U.S. officials a list of firms linked to Lukashenka and "his cronies," that she wants Washington to hit with sanctions, including Belaruskali – Belarus's profitable potash producer -- as well as oil, wood, and steel enterprises.

The latest EU sanctions targeted sections of the Belarusian economy intertwined with Lukashenka's regime, hitting the banking, oil, tobacco, and fertilizer industries. Also hit were several businessmen who are either part of Lukashenka's inner circle or provide crucial services to the authorities.

Overall, the EU's restrictive measures on Belarus now apply to a total of 166 people -- including Lukashenka -- and 15 entities.

The latest round of U.S. sanctions, meanwhile, largely focused on individuals and entities suspected of involvement in the persistent crackdown.

Among the entities targeted by the U.S. Treasury Department were the main Belarusian security service, the KGB; the Interior Ministry troops; and the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPIK.)

In April, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was revoking a license that had allowed transactions with nine sanctioned state-owned companies in Belarus since 2015, including the oil company Belneftekhim, which accounts for 30 percent of Belarus's industrial output.

In Washington, Tsikhanouskaya noted that the latest sectoral sanctions by the EU were strong and said the United States could follow that policy "and also look at [the] possibility to impose sectoral sanctions on Russia."

The Wall Street Journal reported on July 25 that the Biden administration was considering new sanctions. Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, said State Department officials indicated their intent to enact new sanctions, specifically on the Belarusian potash and crude-oil sectors.

Do Sanctions Work?

While the existing rounds of sanctions have sent powerful signals, some observers say they may not have gone far enough.

"All the sanctions before June 2021 were quite symbolic, and mostly involved travel bans for government officials, or targeted macroeconomically insignificant companies. The June 2021 sanctions were more serious, although also with a delay in effect, and just a first step: they only target 20 percent of the exported potash fertilizers, and apply only to future contracts," said Kateryna Bornukova, a research fellow at the Minsk-based Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC).

Industry analysts with the Russian investment bank VTB Capital said in a note quoted by Reuters that the "measures do not cover the key Belarusian potash export, potassium chloride, which…accounts for 80 percent of the country's supplies to the EU."

Exports of potash, important for fertilizer, are a major source of foreign currency for Belarus; the state firm Belaruskali says it produces 20 percent of the world's supply.

Potash fertilizer is the regime's second-largest export after refined petroleum, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

The EU statistics agency said the bloc imported $1.5 billion worth of chemicals including potash from Belarus last year, as well as more than $1.2 billion worth of crude oil and related products such as fuel and lubricants.

Some have argued that the latest sanctions were strong enough to convince Lukashenka to transfer Raman Pratasevich from jail to house arrest. Pratasevich had been dragged off the Ryanair Athens-to-Vilnius flight that was diverted to Minsk on May 23 and arrested along with his girlfriend Sofia Sapaga, a Russian citizen.

Pratasevich was reportedly tortured during his detention and was paraded on state TV, clearly under duress, praising Lukashenka and renouncing past activities.

Other analysts, including Bornukova, aren't convinced.

"I believe it is too early to tell if the sanctions are working, but the release of Pratasevich does not seem to be one of the consequences. Instead, we see more aggression towards the West through the orchestrated migrant flows to Lithuania. We also see a crackdown on civil society," explained Bornukova. "So, the sanctions do bother the Belarusian government, but so far the reaction is more aggression instead of concessions or dialogue."

Lithuanian authorities said on July 28 that the number of people illegally crossing its border from Belarus has passed 3,000 from the start of the year in what it sees as a coordinated campaign by Lukashenka, who vowed to flood EU countries with migrants and drugs in revenge for the latest round of sanctions.

In the latest move against Belarusian independent media and NGOs, the Belarusian Interior Ministry on July 27 designated Belsat, the only Belarusian-language TV channel in existence and which is based in Poland, as an "extremist organization."

Lukashenka has also hit out at Washington, announcing restrictions on diplomatic relations. Such measures include the reduction of personnel in the U.S. diplomatic mission, tightening visa requirements, and restricting the work of U.S. specialists in Belarus. The Belarusian government also rescinded the authorization for the United States Agency for International Development to work in Belarus.

Washington's Other Options

Besides more sanctions, what other options does Washington have?

Tooke argued that "beyond a certain level of rhetoric, Belarus isn't really a priority for Biden, as shown by his lack of focus on the issue during his summit with Putin."

"So, the U.S. needs to be honest with itself and acknowledge what it is and isn't prepared to countenance when it comes to pushback, including from Russia," he said in e-mailed remarks.

Instead of focusing on Lukashenka, "who will find his financial support from Russia," Washington and Brussels should focus on helping those Belarusian democratic forces facing repression, argued Alesia Rudnik, a Swedish-based Belarusian analyst.

"I would prioritize three areas for financial help: political emigrants who had to flee the country (and are now receiving crowdfunded help through BySol); NGOs and independent media that have been closed and will likely lose access to their bank accounts and will have to operate from abroad and online; democratic forces inside Belarus working with different groups (students, factory workers, and families of political prisoners)," Rudnik said in e-mailed remarks.

In a similar vein, Michael Kimmage, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, recently wrote that "the United States and the European Union should invest more in people than in transformative outcomes which it cannot deliver. Policies that make it easier for Belarusians to travel and study in the European Union should be encouraged. Gradual changes in political sensibility, whereby the habits of political liberty are internalized, should be advanced."

Increased support for the democratic forces is likely to trigger a response from Moscow, something Brussels and Washington must factor in, cautioned Tooke.

"The more Washington supports the democratic opposition, the more it feeds into Russian fears of the West seeking Lukashenka's replacement with a pro-Western, anti-Russian regime. And we only have to look to Ukraine to see how Russia responds to what it sees as regime change imposed from outside in its so-called near abroad," he wrote.

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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.