Take your pick of burning foreign-policy priorities for Joe Biden: From China to Yemen to rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal, it’s no secret the incoming administration faces a staggering number of demands from a world in economic crisis and still in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic.
However, one overarching goal for Biden’s team will be key for achieving many others: Reinvigorating the transatlantic relationship with our closest, most important democratic allies. And there’s one concrete issue that holds a realistic promise of delivering an important symbolic victory for liberal democracy: ridding Belarus of its dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka.
In the four-plus months since the Belarusian president declared himself the winner of an election Western countries roundly condemned as rigged, tens of thousands of protesters of all ages and professions have been taking to the streets each week to call for an end to Lukashenka’s 26 years of iron-fisted rule.
Increasingly demoralized and afraid, they keep turning out despite the brutal arrests and torture of many thousands, and some deaths, including that of a 31-year-old schoolteacher in police custody last month whose case prompted international outrage. Stepping up their brutality, police are systematically color-coding prisoners to determine who may be raped, who merely beaten, and who possibly left disabled for life.
With the United States all-but moribund on the world stage, the European Union has led the Western response with sanctions on Belarusian officials and condemnation from leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. But the opposition desperately needs more help to achieve its call to free political prisoners and hold a new fair election.
Opposition leader Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya—forced into exile in neighboring Lithuania after what many Belarusians believe to have been her victory in the Aug. 4 election—is calling on the United States to take the lead working with other Western countries as well as the EU to expand targeted sanctions against the regime’s enablers. She’s also urging countries to cripple the state-run economy by withholding capital from the two state banks that control more than half of Belarus’s assets as well as suspending trade with state-owned companies and freezing investments in the country.
The opposition is also calling for an international investigation into human rights abuses and future action by the International Criminal Court against crimes against humanity. And it’s asking for immediate technical and financial assistance for the unions and NGOs leading strikes and protests as well as help for independent media and victims of state repression.
Some U.S. politicians are acting. The House of Representatives passed a bill last month that would expand the Belarus Democracy Acts of 2004, 2006 and 2011 and renew economic and visa sanctions on Belarusian and Russian officials complicit in the crackdown. The Senate is now expected to consider the measure before its current sessions ends this month.
The legislation calls for a fresh election, the release of political prisoners and recognizing the opposition’s Coordination Council as a legitimate institution in a peaceful transition of power. “The people of Belarus—especially the pro-democracy leaders—desperately need our help,” Republican Rep. Chris Smith, who introduced the bill in the House, said on the floor last month. Approving the measures would send a strong signal of support for Belarusians and a warning to Lukashenka and his Russian allies not to see the U.S. transition period as a good time to act with impunity.
But it will fall to the next administration to lead Washington’s effort on Belarus, which could start with executive action as soon as Biden takes office, not only over crucial support for the Belarusian people but also to counter Lukashenka’s closest ally Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has so far backed Lukashenka politically and economically, and sent Russian advisers and journalists to Minsk to oversee his propaganda effort. But it’s no secret Putin and Lukashenka despise each other and that the Kremlin would like to see the Belarusian president replaced with a more competent leader. Lukashenka has publicly agreed with Moscow that he should step down after reforming the constitution but has been clearly dragging his feet.
The Kremlin faces a dilemma in Belarus, not wanting to countenance the precedent of popular will determining the outcome of an election in its back yard, but also wary of turning previously pro-Russian Belarusians against their powerful neighbor by taking military or other overt action. Ultimately, Moscow surely wants to boost its influence indirectly, with Russian oligarchs taking controlling stakes in the handful of state enterprises that make up the bulk of the economy.
With Putin’s own distaste for Lukashenka, there’s an opening for Washington to reassert its role in the region by pushing back against the spread of kleptocratic autocracy on the continent by a Kremlin that’s deft at exploiting power vacuums, and whose aggression is checked only by the demonstration of willingness to take countervailing action. But Washington has made clear it’s interested in enabling the will of Belarusians, not sidelining Russia. Addressing the crisis in Belarus also offers a channel through which to constructively engage Moscow. The U.S. could do this by pressing for talks between Lukashenka and the opposition mediated by the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, of which Russia is a member.
That wouldn’t mean an ill-advised reset in relations with Russia, just taking an important opportunity to advance American interests and values by making a crucial immediate impact in a European country whose people are risking their lives to determine their own democratic future.