17 January 2018, Wednesday, 13:45

Tom Melia: We are ready welcome Belarus with open arms


The deputy assistant to the US Secretary of State Tom Melia gave an exclusive interview to the charter97.org web-site.

The representative of the USA Department of State is taking part in the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting 2013, which is taking place in Warsaw these days. In the framework of his visit Tom Melia met charter97.org’s editor-in-chief Natalia Radzina and answered her questions.

- Mr. Melia, they call you "a key player in the democracy development around the world". The Washington Post says that you promote democracy in most exotic places – Iraq, Afghanistan, African countries, Eastern Europe, including Belarus. How do you think changes can be achieved in Belarus?

- Ultimately the future of Belarus will be decided by the citizens of Belarus. The role of the international community that wants Belarus to succeed as a sovereign, independent, prosperous, stable country is to support democrats in Belarus and other countries. It’s not our policy, it is not even possible for us to organize things in other countries, but there is a supporting role that we can play in providing political solidarity, diplomatic pressure, sometimes material support to different democratic initiatives in countries like Belarus. So I think working in partnership with the people of Belarus, trying to help them get to where they can elect governments that represent the people of Belarus is our role. As you know, the US and European countries have been quite active in applying pressure on Belarus in response to the crackdown after the December presidential elections three years ago and trying to pressure the authorities in Belarus to move in the European democratic direction.

- The USA maintains a principled attitude towards the Lukashenka regime. However, economic sanctions were lifted from a number of Belarusian enterprises. The political situation in Belarus keeps deteriorating, though. Is the US ready to respond to that in an adequate manner?

- I think you are referring to the sanctions against two Belarusian companies that expired in June. They were actually related to non-proliferation activities that certain companies and the government in Belarus have been supporting in places like Iran, where they are trying to develop nuclear weapons. Those were sanctions for that purpose they expired according to our laws after two years. It wasn’t a response to anything positive in the political situation in Belarus, which, as you say, is continuing to be bad and is deteriorating. We are always looking for ways to engage, and, I think, the government of Belarus knows well, and it was officially stated three years ago in Astana between our two foreign ministers, that the absence of democracy in Belarus is a major impediment to the strengthening of our bilateral relationship. That remains our policy. We are ready to welcome Belarus with open arms. What they need to do is to make sure that there are no political prisoners and moreover that people that have been imprisoned for their political activity not only be released but be restored to the ability to participate in public politics. That’s why it’s important to be at a meeting like this here in Warsaw this week, where we can meet with Belarusian activists, some of whom are coming from inside Belarus, some of whom are forced to live outside of their home country, and to demonstrate our solidarity and support for a better future for Belarus.

- Your article in the book "Shoulder to Shoulder: Forging a Strategic US EU Partnership" is entitled "Supporting Democracy Abroad: Transatlantic Cooperation at a Crossroads". How would you asses the current level of cooperation between the EU and US?

- Certainly in my now three years in the State Department I’ve seen that we and our European partners have built out a wide range of cooperation on different human rights issues. Some of them are global frameworks where we are supporting the rights of LGBT individuals or looking for financial and material support for human rights defenders, who get in trouble with their own governments, more and more European governments are joining with us to put concrete measures into place that will help human rights defenders. At a time, I should say, during these last three years, and especially the last eighteen months, the situation for democratic activists is getting more and more difficult in more and more countries. Not only in the former Soviet Union countries, but including in the countries of the former Soviet Union, we have seen new laws put into place to create new obstacles for democratic activists’ work and their cross-border cooperation with friends in the wider word. Ironically our cooperation with Europe is growing at the same time that the problem is growing.

- Some experts believe that the USA has left Europe or its involvement is insufficient and say that the Americans must come back to Europe…

- I disagree with the premise. I don’t think that the US has left Europe. A lot of us are engaged on a daily basis with European partners in Western and Central Europe to help advance the democratic transitions in countries further to the East. We see important progress in places like Moldova and I would say Georgia and I would say in other places. We are engaged in Europe, Europe is a vital partner to us in the Middle East, in Asia and everything else we do, so there is no diminution of our commitment to Transatlantic cooperation.

- The European Union did not support the economic sanctions that the USA imposed on the Lukashenka regime. It was repeatedly stated that measures were taken for the coordination of the sanctions. Why haven’t these measures still succeeded?

- That is a question better directed to the European officials. Obviously, Europe is 28 countries that each have their own national strategies and national interests, and we engage with the EU as the EU, and also with the individual countries. I would direct your question to the European governments and the to EU about why they are not doing certain things. We continue to think that it is important for us to work closely with the EU and particularly these border countries with the Eastern Partnership.

- But the American government always says that they try to coordinate the work with the European Union in their policy on Belarus, though we can’t see this coordination.

- All I can say is that it is a part of our conversations. Two-three weeks ago I was in Brussels for a formal bilateral dialogue with the EU, in which several of us, senior officials from Washington, spent two days with our counterparts in the EU discussing a range of shared interests in the world, and Belarus was definitely a part of that conversation. We were reminded on that occasion that the EU’s policy depends on finding a consensus with 28 different governments, and that is obviously even more complicated than the development of the US foreign policy.

- You worked for Hillary Clinton's Department of State. Now you work with John Kerry. Will the Department's approaches to Belarus change in the future?

- I think you’ll see mainly continuity of our principled posture towards Belarus. Secretary Kerry has obviously developed some new initiatives in the Middle East and different parts of the world, but he is giving every indication to build on what Secretary Clinton did. That includes our support to civil society in Belarus and other countries and our support to trying to persuade the Belarusian government to do the right thing in terms of its own people.

- Before the Department of State, you worked for Freedom House where you were responsible for the program to help democratic activists in dictatorial countries. Are you more of an official or a human rights defender?

- I was by Hillary Clinton in the State Department precisely because of my background in human rights work in Freedom House and NDI. I bring that perspective to my work every day and it is an interesting thing about our system that people are coming from outside with different kinds of backgrounds. I think I have been able to add that activist perspective to American diplomacy in this region.

- You helped me personally, when I escaped Belarus and lived underground in Moscow, having been released from prison. Why did you help a usual journalist from Belarus?

- Because it was the right thing to do and the United States, as in this case, uses our diplomatic and our program resources to help people continue their work even if they are forced to move outside the country. So I was honored to be able to help in that case.

- In January 2011, when a military coup virtually had taken place in Belarus, you came to Minsk at Hillary Clinton’s personal request. How would you assess the situation in Belarus after three years?

- I wish I could say there was a lot or forwards movement towards restoring a democratic process, but obviously there has not been. We have another set of election on the horizon in the next couple of years, we are hoping that Belarusian people have a chance for a more open and genuine election process in which they can choose their officials. We will continue to try to work to support democrats in Belarus and also to try to engage the government so that they can see that the future of a more prosperous, stable, independent Belarus lies in the democratic direction, that all of the goals that Belarus has will be advance by becoming more democratic. It would be better for the people, it would be better for the country.

- The EU is trying to establish a new dialogue with Lukashenka today. It is mainly lobbied by the countries that are economically dependent on Lukashenka. How can this realpolitik be opposed?

- The challenge is not to try to oppose countries pursuing their national interests, the challenge is to broaden the conversation to think about the longer term kind of Europe that we all want to see, which is one in which rights respecting democratic governments pursue national interests based on the will of the people they represent. That is the challenge for us. It is not trying to oppose countries acting in what they think of as their national interest, the challenge is to round up that conversation to help them, particularly those that are committed to European integration, to understand that there is a larger European dimension to this.

- Today is the birthday of Ales Bialiatski. What would tell Ales Bialiatski and other political prisoners in Belarus?

- I hope the next time I talk to Ales it will be out in the public, perhaps in his office at home or perhaps here at the HDIM. We hope he gets out and returns to his family very soon. As you know it was a year ago that the State Department presented the human right award to Ales, and his wife and others from Belarus were present here in Warsaw at the presentation that we made. Hopefully it won’t be another year that goes by and sees him behind bars.

We continue to press to only for the release of the political prisoners but for the restoration of their political rights, and hopefully by the time the next elections roll around there will be more voices competing in the political market.