After 26 years of corrupt, authoritarian rule under President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarusians have decided they want a change in leadership.
Even as the majority of Belarusians appear to have supported the alternative candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, in the country’s August 9 presidential election, Lukashenko declared himself the winner. When hundreds of thousands of Belarusians began to protest peacefully, he ordered his security forces to use brutal violence against them and imprisoned more than 6,000 protesters. Ensuing nationwide strikes and ongoing demonstrations—the largest in the country’s 30 years of independence—have inspired hope that Lukashenko’s time might be up.
He is not going quietly, however—which is where the West comes in.
It won’t be easy to push out “Europe’s last dictator,” nor should any country resort to military action to do that. But there are several other concrete steps the international community, including the United States, can take to help make that happen—and put Belarus on a path to true democracy. Resolving the crisis in Belarus, which borders Russia, Ukraine and several NATO member states, will have major implications for all of Europe.
On Wednesday, the European Union took a step in the right direction by holding an emergency summit devoted to Belarus in which the EU refused to recognize Lukashenko’s reelection. German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it clearly: “The election was neither free nor fair.” EU Council President Charles Michel also announced plans to reimpose sanctions “on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence.”
Not only will such actions be a boost to the opposition in Belarus, but treating Lukashenko like a pariah leaves him little ground to stand on. It sows doubts in the minds of his supporters, making them worried that they, too, might be sanctioned. Already, dozens of Belarusian police officers, state television presenters and several diplomats have resigned, not wanting to be a part of Lukashenko’s desperate and brutal efforts to stay in power. Lukashenko was booed and shouted down during an appearance at a state-owned enterprise on August 17. Sanctions and other outside pressure could encourage more defections from the regime, depriving Lukashenko of critical administrative support.
Instead of following the EU’s lead, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday issued a disappointing statement. He failed to say that the United States would not recognize the election results, nor did he call for a new, free and fair election. The administration has another opportunity to get this right with a high-level trip to the region starting Monday, led by Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun, a highly respected Eurasia expert.
There is much more that the United States and Europe could be doing right now. America and the EU, in consultation with Belarusians, should encourage the Kremlin to play a constructive role by allowing Lukashenko to flee to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not usually eager to work with Western counterparts, and he does not like to see like-minded leaders driven out of power by popular movements. But Putin reportedly finds Lukashenko unpredictable and unsophisticated. In response to Lukashenko’s requests for intervention from Russia, the Kremlin publicly has offered only vague assurances and has said Russia won’t step in for now. That said, there already are signs of Russian “advisers” in Belarus.
By facilitating Lukashenko’s departure, Putin would engender goodwill toward Russia among Belarusians, which could protect Russia’s influence there. If, instead, he is tempted to prop up Lukashenko, make a military move in Belarus or even to try to meddle in the election, Putin should consider that any such action would generate huge anti-Russian sentiment and even resistance, alienating the country of 9.5 million people. The West should warn Moscow in the clearest terms against taking these steps—for Putin’s own good, as well as Belarus’. So far, President Donald Trump merely has said he would talk to Putin about Belarus “at the appropriate time.”
Temporarily, the West should treat Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee to neighboring Lithuania, as the legitimate, transitional leader until new elections are held. An English teacher, Tikhanovskaya was an unknown entity before this summer and did not harbor presidential ambitions; she entered the race only after her husband was disqualified as a candidate in the election and then arrested. But she has expressed support for holding new elections and freeing her country from Lukashenko’s grip. She and/or her designated representatives must have a seat at the table in any negotiations and discussions about the way forward. No deals or arrangements about Belarus can be agreed upon without the involvement of Belarusians.
The United States and the EU must understand that the protests in Belarus are not about that country’s place in the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. They are about Belarus and Lukashenko. The West must avoid the “Finlandization” of Belarus—i.e., avoid making decisions about whether to exclude Belarus from any international organizations or bodies, including NATO and the EU. Nor should outsiders consign Belarus forever to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Only a truly representative and democratic Belarusian government should decide whether to maintain these existing arrangements. These matters should be approached very deliberately, when the time is right.
At the same time, the West should support Belarus in its economic recovery. After 26 years of Lukashenko’s corrupt mismanagement of the economy, in which the state’s role increased along with reliance on Russian subsidies, Belarus is in dire need of assistance. The country also is reeling from Lukashenko’s gross neglect of the coronavirus pandemic. Belarus should look to the EU as its main source of support. After all, Belarus is part of Europe, and a rebounding Belarusian economy will redound to Europe’s benefit. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Monetary Fund and World Bank also should offer assistance.
There is no question that Lukashenko must go. He already had blood on his hands from his repressive rule over his 26 years in power. Since the election, videos and other evidence have emerged of police and prison guards torturing and beating jailed protesters. Scores of demonstrators remain unaccounted for, and several were killed by Lukashenko’s forces. His behavior and rhetoric have become increasingly unhinged. The risk of more bloodshed increases every day that he stays in the country and rejects the protesters’ demands. His threats to launch a massive crackdown or get help from Russia make matters only worse.
The sooner a peaceful transition of power occurs, the sooner political turbulence in Belarus will end. Then, Belarusians will finally be able to pursue the path of peaceful and democratic development, as well as good relations with all of their neighbors, while also determining their own destiny, starting with new fair and free elections.
The West must help get Belarus to that point. The question is whether it will.
This article is also available on politico.com.