WASHINGTON -- U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun has said Russia risks losing the friendship of the Belarusian people if the Kremlin continues to back authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Biegun made the comments on September 11 as Lukashenka faces the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule amid nationwide protests against the results of the August 9 presidential election that handed him a sixth five-year term.
Meanwhile, Belarusian Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich said she feared her country could lose its independence amid the political strife and called on Russian intellectuals for support.
Speaking to journalists during a conference call, Biegun said most Belarusians "have seen Russia as the country closest to their hearts and we respect that sentiment and sovereign choice. It thus eludes us how Moscow could back such a regime and such violence against peaceful citizens, exercising constitutionally protected rights to freedom of assembly, association, and speech.”
The senior U.S. diplomat said that if the Russian leadership “continues down this path, it risks turning the Belarusian people -- who have no grievance with Russia -- against Moscow.”
In Minsk, Alexievich seemed to echo that notion by lamenting that Russian intellectuals haven't spoken out against Lukashenka's actions.
"Why aren't you helping my little nation maintain its dignity and statehood," she said, addressing Russians.
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.
The Belarusian people have called on Lukashenka to step down and hold free and fair elections, claiming the August 9 vote was rigged in his favor. The 66-year-old Belarusian leader has responded to the peaceful protests with violent arrests and torture.
His actions have not only emboldened the opposition, they have alienated Western governments, forcing Lukashenka to look to the Kremlin for support as he seeks to cling to power.
Lukashenka will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 14 at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, their first face-to-face meeting since the election. However, Lukashenka has spoken with Putin several times by phone since August 9.
The two leaders have spoken several times by phone since August 9 with Putin promising military assistance under a bilateral military pact, including a police force. The Sochi meeting comes amid a years-long push by Putin for a Union state with Belarus, raising concern that a weakened Lukashenka could bow to the Russian leaders demands.
“There is a danger that we could lose our country,” Alexievich said. Biegun said it was “disturbing to see increasing signs of overt Russian support” for the embattled dictator, but he declined to say if the United States would take any action, such as imposing more sanctions on Moscow, to oppose it.
Biegun pointed out that Russians citizens have also been swept up by Belarusian police as part of the crackdown against protesters and “subject to the same brutal violence.”
The U.S. deputy secretary of state said he hoped that Putin would express concern about the violence against Belarusian and Russian citizens committed by Lukashenka’s government and the need for the strongman to step down.
“We hope the message from Moscow is that the ruler needs to give way to the will of his people,” Biegun said of the September 14 meeting.
He said the United States is working with its European allies, Moscow and Belarus to “generate a proposal that offers a way out” for Lukashenka. The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia issued a joint statement on September 14 saying Belarus should hold new presidential elections to resolve the standoff.
Biegun called on Lukashenka to hold talks with the Coordination Council that was set up by opposition leaders following the election to facilitate a transfer of power, saying the strongman had been "rejected by his own people."
He said U.S. support for such talks "does not mean we're asking Belarus to choose between East and West."
Alexievich, who is one of the seven members of the Coordination Council's presidium, warned that if Lukashenka doesn't negotiate, the problems will fester and "we will get nothing but a civil war."
In the meantime, Biegun said the United States and its European allies will not let Lukashenka's actions go unpunished.
The West is coordinating on sanctions against officials in Belarus responsible for election falsification as well as the beatings and detentions, according to the U.S. deputy secretary of state, who said he expected the U.S. sanctions list to be finalized “in just a few short days.”
He said the West will avoid sanctions, at this stage, that impact companies and the economy.
“We do not also want to impose on the citizens of Belarus any additional punitive measures unless absolutely necessary and supportive of the goals we are seeking in Belarus,” he said.
EU countries have also called for a debate and resolution on Belarus at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for next week.