The scenes coming out of Belarus after Sunday’s election are both appalling and inspiring. Appalling because President Alexander Lukashenko’s thuggish security forces have unleashed brutal attacks on protesters in the wake of a clearly rigged election. Inspiring because tens of thousands of Belarusians are returning to the streets night after night and going on strike at their workplaces to say enough is enough — they want a change in leadership after 26 years of the authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent Lukashenko.
The scenes coming out of Belarus following Sunday’s election are both appalling and inspiring.
Official tallies claim he won with some 80 percent of the vote, but there is little doubt that Lukashenko stole this election, like he has done before. Lukashenko completely mishandled the coronavirus pandemic, and the economy is a mess. The huge turnout at campaign rallies for Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s leading challenger, reflected the growing discontent with his regime. And the dictator’s prepositioning of special forces to arrest protestors before the vote was confirmed suggests that even he knew that he could not win a free and fair election.
The situation in Belarus is tense and uncertain. The regime could lose its grip on power, as has already occurred in other democratic breakthroughs in Serbia 2000, Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004. Most recently, falsified presidential elections in Malawi in mid-2019 triggered massive popular uprisings, the results were annulled, and a rerun of election in 2020 brought to power the opposition challenger. A similar story could play out in Belarus.
Or Lukashenka could instead institute draconian martial law, arrest even more people beyond the estimated 6,700 already detained, and provoke more bloodshed. He seems to be making plans for this scenario already.
Or Russian President Vladimir Putin might get involved. Should demonstrations grow and pressure for Lukashenko’s departure increase, Putin might be tempted to offer military assistance, as he did to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria in 2015, or even worse, invade Belarus, as he did in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. Putin and Lukashenko have managed a tense, volatile relationship for decades, and Putin might seek to exploit Lukashenko’s vulnerable position now. A successful democratic movement in a country with so much shared culture and history is a threat to Putin’s authoritarian system.
The West should not wait for one of these options to play out. Similar precarious moments of stalemate between democrats and dictators in the past show that early Western action can play a positive role in preventing bloodshed and steering both sides toward a peaceful, democratic outcome.
Precarious moments of stalemate between democrats and dictators in the past show that early Western action can play a positive role in preventing bloodshed.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a strong statement Monday, describing the election as neither free nor fair. He also rightly called on the Belarusian government to “respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from use of force and release those wrongfully detained.” But issuing such statements is nowhere near enough. Belarus is in crisis and requires not just words but actions from the highest levels of the State Department.
First, Pompeo should coordinate with the European Union to reimpose sanctions immediately on Lukashenko and his entire government — stealing elections and beating and arresting protesters should trigger consequences. Working together, the E.U. and U.S. should also call for the immediate release of all those detained. If violence and arrests continue, they should make clear that these sanctions will expand to Belarus’ top 100 government leaders, as well as to critical enterprises, especially those in the military industrial complex.
There is plenty of precedent here. Both the U.S. and E.U. imposed sanctions on Belarus after rigged elections and subsequent violence in 2006 and 2010. But the U.S. lifted most of its sanctions and the E.U. all of its measures in 2016 in the naïve hope that Lukashenko and the West could somehow return to friendly relations. Pompeo even traveled to Belarus this year, becoming the most senior U.S. official to meet with Lukashenko in decades. Officials in the United States and Europe should recognize that “normal” relations with Minsk are impossible as long as Lukashenko — a master at pitting Russia and the West against each other — is in power.
Western leaders, both privately and publicly, need to warn Putin that any intervention by Russian forces — overtly or covertly — will be met with severe consequences, including harsh sanctions tougher than those imposed for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Pompeo and his European counterparts should volunteer to mediate a transitional pact between the Lukashenko regime and opposition leaders. Pompeo should designate a senior member of Congress, to be accompanied by one or two counterparts from Europe, to travel to Minsk to help end the violence against protestors and broker a peaceful, negotiated transition from authoritarian rule. Even if Lukashenko refuses to participate, others in his regime need to understand that such a process now is the only way to avoid an even more violent, revolutionary change — perhaps exacerbated by Russian military intervention.
The U.S. and E.U. should also ramp up assistance to Belarusian civil society, including humanitarian funds for those beaten and imprisoned and others compelled to flee the country, help to sustain the flow of information inside and outside of Belarus, and shore up support for Western nongovernmental organizations working there.
Lastly, all of us in the West — presidents, prime ministers, parliaments, civil society leaders and the media — must not lose interest in this crisis. We must continue to focus our attention on the events unfolding in Belarus, and make sure demonstrators fighting for freedom know which side of the barricade we stand on.
For more than two decades, Belarus has been written off as the last dictatorship in Europe. (In fact, there are two, the other being Putin’s Russia.) But fed up with Lukashenko, Belarusians have not given up fighting for democracy. When they need us most, we — Democrats and Republicans at home together, democracies around the world united — must not give up on them.