Former U.S. assistant secretary of state has talked about how to put pressure on the Belarusian regime.
David Kramer, Florida International University researcher, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights in the administration of George W. Bush, former Director of Freedom House, said in an interview with Charter97.org that the only way to make Lukashenka leave is to increase pressure.
- The U.S., the EU, Canada and the UK have recently adopted new sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Also, sectoral sanctions of the U.S. Treasury Department came into effect on December 8. Is it a strong blow to the Lukashenka regime?
- This is a strong hit of the Lukashenka regime, but it is not enough. If we really want to change the situation in Belarus, we must act against the support of Lukashenka, coming from Russia. I would say that without Putin's support and some support from oligarchs, Russian enterprises, Lukashenka would have already been gone. If we want to stop financial support of the illegitimate regime in Belarus, we need to impose sanctions against certain individuals and entities. For example, against Mikhail Gutseriev, who got under the sanctions of the EU and Great Britain, but for some reason did not get under the sanctions of the USA.
There is also the problem of support from the countries of the Persian Gulf, in particular the Arab Emirates. The UAE is an ally of the United States, we have to let them know that there is a choice: either to do business with Lukashenka or to remain on good terms with the United States. I think it will be very easy decision to make if we say this way.
I think the decision to impose additional sanctions against Belarus is the right one, but there has to be more if we want to have an effect.
- How do you assess the work of the new White House administration on the issue of Belarus during this time? What has been achieved?
- There has been a clear attempt to put a lot of pressure on Lukashenka. I think cooperation between the United States and our European allies has greatly improved when it comes to political sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Speaking of the previous Trump administration, then U.S. Under Secretary of State Stephen Biegun and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent went to Vilnius to meet with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and then went to Moscow to discuss the situation with Russian officials.
In the last half of 2020, there was little coordination between the U.S. and the EU over sanctions, but under the Biden administration, the cooperation has become much better. However, the situation itself has deteriorated. The terrible August and the months that followed, when Lukashenka stole the election and launched a brutal crackdown on protesters. This happened when Trump was in power, but the repression against protesters continues. Certainly, the protests are not as public as they were in August 2020.
Later, we witnessed the hijacking of the Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius through Belarus and the arming of migrants and refugees from the Middle East. This served to create an additional crisis in Europe. I do not think Putin was behind the hijacking of the plane, but he is responsible for the use of illegal migrants that we saw later. This only reinforces the point I made at the beginning: if we want to influence the situation with Lukashenka, we have to factor into the support coming from Russia. In my opinion, the Biden administration has to come to that conclusion.
- The U.S. president also raised the issue of Belarus during his personal meeting with Putin in Switzerland, as well as in a recent video phone conversation. What signals could he be sending to the head of the Kremlin in these conversations?
- I think that supporting Lukashenka is a losing position for Russia. Before the events of August, Belarus was either neutral or sometimes even positive towards Russia. There was no real antagonism or dislike towards Russia and its policy. However, the situation changed because of the various meetings we saw between Putin and Lukashenka, the support of Russia, the increased presence of Russian forces on the territory of Belarus, increased security cooperation, and the presence of Russian TV presenters (I would not call them journalists), who replaced Belarusian ones in August and September last year. I think this constant support from Moscow could turn the people of Belarus against Russia. Putin has a terrible understanding of his neighbors.
I hope the U.S. has made it clear - continued support for the Belarusian regime runs the risk that Russia's other neighbor will turn against it. There are no calls for Belarus to join NATO or the EU, but neither should we close the doors of these organizations if changes in the country lead to a mass desire to join. We saw how after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, support for joining NATO rose from 12-13 percent to majority support. This is just another example of Putin's failure to understand his neighbors. His approach and tactics turn countries against Russia and make people want the protection of the North Atlantic institution.
- Do you see any possibility of a consensus between the West and Russia on the issue of Belarus, or do you believe that Putin will support the Lukashenka regime to the end?
- I do not see any understanding or consensus between the West and Russia. We seem to be on completely different pages. Speaking about the second part of your question, whether Putin will support Lukashenka to the end, I am inclined to say yes. Putin does not want Lukashenka to be removed from power as a result of the protests. This is a bad example for Russia.
Putin and Lukashenka do not get along, I think this is a generally accepted view. Yes, they meet quite often, about 10 times this year if I am not mistaken, and support for Russia remains relatively stable. It is kind of an expression "better the devil you know than the devil you do not". Thus, they are more likely to try their chances of keeping him in power than replacing him with another leader who may take a different approach, not only in domestic politics but also in foreign policy.
- The dictator's most recent moves are the hijacking of an airplane and the migration crisis on the border with Lithuania and Poland - showed that he threatens not only the Belarusians, but also the European security. Did the West realize that they were dealing with someone like European Hussein or Gaddafi?
- There are those who thought that all what was going on concerned only people in Belarus, as they said, why should we worry about it? So, we were reminded why we should worry. First of all, it is an argument of war, and the members of the Council of Europe and the OSCE have a responsibility to look at the internal situation, whether there is the right to vote and so on. Countries have to use their voices to influence this or that situation in Belarus, Russia or another country.
Now the situation goes beyond Belarus. The Ryanair hijacking is supposed to scare anyone who flies over Russia and Belarus, because you might be sitting next to some political activist without knowing it. We saw something similar in St. Petersburg after the Ryanair plane was hijacked. The Russians did not hijack the plane, but they would not let the Polish LOT take off because there was a Russian activist on board. He was forced back to the terminal and arrested.
Certainly, Lukashenka is working hard to "flood" Lithuania and Poland, to a lesser extent Latvia, with migrants and refugees from the Middle East. At the same time, he knows that this is a sensitive issue in some European countries. Lithuania has already many refugees from Russia and Belarus, and this is a small country with just over 3 million people. It is worth noting that Lithuania has done a heroic job of helping and supporting Belarusians and other nationalities, but there are also problems with the capacity of the country.
Poland, a country 10 times larger than Lithuania, also has a fairly strict approach to migration policy. Crossing the border by these people from the Middle East is a political problem for the country. Yes, it raises questions within the European Union itself, when some member states that are not on the front lines can easily criticize Poland and Lithuania for the way they handle the situation. But these critics do not bear the brunt of this arming of migrants, which Lukashenka has taken advantage of.
There is also the problem of August, when Lukashenka stole the election. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was obviously the winner of the election. European countries and, frankly, any democracy cannot sit back and do nothing, because that would lead to a lot of similar cases where the elections could be stolen by someone else. I am speaking from Miami, where there are also concerns about the upcoming U.S. elections. That is why we cannot just do nothing.
- In one of your interviews, you said "Lukashenka must be pressured until he is gone." What are the instruments of such strong pressure do you see?
- Sanctions against the outside support that Lukashenka receives. I also called for labelling him as a terrorist. More specifically, I do not want us to call him a state sponsor of terrorism, because that would mean that we would recognize him as a state leader. We should treat him as a completely illegitimate leader that no one should meet with.
It is very unfortunate that Chancellor Merkel spoke to him before she resigned. Western leaders should not talk to him. We have to do everything we can to put pressure on him and his entourage, including Russia and the UAE. We can do more, and I really hope there is the political will to do that.
- You mentioned a rather non-standard method - pressure on the Arab countries so that they would block Lukashenka's accounts. How effective and potentially possible is this method?
- I think it is absolutely necessary and possible. It would mean that he would be able to keep his corrupt money safe in Western Europe or somewhere else.
Look, it is going to hurt if we tighten sanctions harder for the people of Belarus, for some European countries that trade with Belarus, nobody should pretend that sanctions are painless. Sanctions are not painless, they must be, because the other alternative is to do nothing. It seems to me that we must increase pressure and cut off sources of funding.
Without funding, Lukashenka will not be able to pay the security services, which means they're less likely to follow orders, such as participating in bloody repression of his citizens.
- How do you see the end of the Lukashenka regime and the Belarusian dictator personally?
- I do believe that his days are numbered, but I cannot say when it will be over. It is hard to call his situation stable. If the West really increases pressure on him, even Moscow may decide that keeping him in power is not in their interest. He has zero legitimacy, the only way he is in power is through brutal violence against the people of Belarus, persecution of journalists, civil society, and opposition activists.
The recent sentence of opposition representatives reflects his tremendous insecurity. The need to lock these people up for as long as possible suggests that he has no other options to stay in power, only with the use of brute force. I do not think this can last long.
I would certainly like Lukashenka to leave not yesterday, but 15-20 years ago. I think there are enough people in Belarus today who understand that 27 years in power is more than enough. He has been in power longer than Putin. So the only way for him to stay in power is to use brutal force with the support that comes from Russia and the UAE. I think we can try to do more to put an end to this.