BISMARCK, North Dakota — As part of the former Soviet Union, it is not surprising that Belarus still has deep ties to Russia. The current president, Alexander Lukashenko leads the country with a brutal regime that appears to some citizens to cater mostly to the needs of Russia and not the citizens of Belarus. This has led many in the country to push for Lukashenko’s removal and the implementation of a truly democratic system.
The Necessity of Democracy in Belarus
There are several reasons for the push for democracy. One of the main reasons is the brutal human rights abuses that those within Belarus are subjected to, especially when they dissent from the government. Recently, the government has cracked down violently on protestors and journalists who it views as a threat. These human rights abuses have led to international outcry.
While the human rights issues are at center stage, there is another reason for citizens to push for democracy in Belarus. The economy is closely tied to that of Russia, which means that growth is almost stagnant. The Soviet-era economy that still operates in Belarus may have led to shockingly low poverty numbers, but this does not tell the whole story. Belarus still operates under a Soviet-era economy with state-owned industrial and agricultural sectors. This means that even though poverty rates are low, the country is far from wealthy, especially in rural areas. Democratization would allow for more growth and more earned wealth as the economy modernized.
The U.S. government has not ignored the situation in Belarus. U.S. action in Belarus has come from the Biden administration, Congress and the embassy in Belarus. While the administration has issued harsh statements on the situation, it is also weighing possible sanctions. Congress has held Senate hearings to learn more about the situation and determine what U.S. action in Belarus is most needed.
President Biden’s Response
In May 2021, Ryanair Flight 4978 diverted its course while over Belarussian airspace when air traffic control reported they had a bomb on board. The plane was escorted by a Belarussian MiG fighter jet. Once it landed, Belarussian authorities boarded the plane and arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist and his girlfriend. The plane was then allowed to continue its journey. The bomb threat appeared to be fake to get the aircraft to land.
This incident sparked outcry across the world. President Biden released a statement on the incident as well as the overall situation in Belarus. In this statement, President Biden condemned the actions taken by the Belarussian government. He also called for the release of Pratasevich as well as hundreds of other political prisoners. Additionally, he called for an international investigation into the situation in Belarus. President Biden offered his support of the call for economic sanctions against Belarus. He also vowed that U.S. action in Belarus would support the citizens seeking democracy.
Since the president’s statement, it has also been reported that the administration is planning on imposing additional sanctions against Belarus. This action is likely to come in the form of an executive order. This new order would update the current in-use order from 2006 also could include human-rights sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime.
The State Department has also issued a do not travel order for U.S. citizens, warning that Belarus may be unsafe. Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department indicated during a June 3 briefing that the Belarussian government placed limitations on allowing American diplomats in the country. Price indicated that despite this, U.S. action in Belarus would continue to support the citizens seeking democracy and the U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher would still be working to support them from outside Belarus.
On June 9, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on U.S. action in Belarus. In this hearing, they heard from U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Democratic Opposition in Belarus and Jamie Fly, President and CEO of Radio Free Europe.
U.S. Ambassador Julie Fisher gave testimony that starkly contradicted the portrait painted by President Lukashenko. She claimed that the Belarussian government has given up so much of its sovereignty to Vladimir Putin and Russia that it no longer has any control over Russia’s actions within Belarus.
In her testimony, Fisher also outlined some U.S. action in Belarus taken against Lukashenko’s government. She stated that the government placed visa restrictions on those responsible for undermining Belarussian democracy. She also indicated that the U.S. sent more than $20 million in aid since August 2020 to help those in Belarus. There is another $500,000 allocated to the International Accountability Platform for Belarus pending congressional approval.
In her testimony, Tsikhanouskaya, who has been living in exile in Lithuania since Lukashenko’s election in August 2020, called Lukashenko a “threat to international peace and security.” She urged the U.S. to impose strict sanctions against the oil sectors as well as on foreign funders of Belarus. According to her, these sanctions would make the biggest difference inside the country.
As Lukashenko’s government continues to brutally crackdown on dissidents seeking democracy in the country, there is hope. The international community has come out against the government’s actions and vowed to help support pro-democracy activists. U.S. action in Belarus also promises to bring about a more democratic system. It will allow the citizens of Belarus to have a more democratic and more free economic system.
– Taryn Steckler-Houle