30 September 2022, Friday, 13:25
Sim Sim, Charter 97!

Julie Fischer: Lukashenka Lost His Credibility And Legitimacy In Eyes Of Whole World

Julie Fischer: Lukashenka Lost His Credibility And Legitimacy In Eyes Of Whole World
Julie Fischer

The U.S. special envoy on Belarus has given an exclusive interview to the Charter97.org website.

"Lukashenka increasingly demonstrates his willingness to sacrifice everything in exchange for staying in power. I believe this leads to discord between him and the people of Belarus. Also, I see that representatives of the elite do not like the direction Lukashenka is going and the speed with which he is bringing Belarus closer and closer to Russia," U.S. Special Envoy for Belarus Julie Fischer told Charter97.org. In an exclusive interview, the American diplomat answered questions about the Russian troops in Belarus, new sanctions against the Lukashenka regime, as well as expressed support for the Belarusian people.

- Madame Ambassador, we are talking with you at the time when an unprecedented-sized contingent of Russian troops is stationed on the territory of Belarus. There is a serious threat of aggression against Ukraine. How does the United States see this situation and Lukashenka's role in it?

We do not know whether Russia has made a final decision to further invade Ukraine, but it clearly has that capability.  The United States – working closely together with our Allies and partners – has offered Russia a path to de-escalate, but at the same time we are also taking all prudent measures to assure our own security and that of our Allies.  

Russia’s surging of troops into Belarus is a cause for deep concern. And just as we have been clear with the Russian Federation about the severe costs that it would face should it launch renewed aggression against Ukraine, we’ve also made clear to Belarus that if it allows its territory to be used for an attack on Ukraine – whether it is part of making that decision or not – it would face a new level of economic consequences from the United States as well as our Allies and partners.

- Does the United States share the position, expressed by a number of European politicians, that Russian troops on the territory of Belarus is an occupation?

The legal definition of an occupation is nuanced. Should Russian troops remain on Belarusian soil at the conclusion of the exercise, we certainly will look carefully at the dynamics around that presence.  

If Russian troops were to station in Belarus permanently, I would fully expect a commensurate reassessment of NATO’s own posture in response.

- The US and allies say that if the Kremlin attacks Ukraine, tough sanctions will follow. Will there be sanctions against the Kremlin if Russian troops remain on the territory of Belarus?

When it comes to Belarus, we have voiced our concerns with the Russian military buildup.  Beyond the threat to Ukraine and the region, this surge of Russian troops, or any longer-term Russian military presence, may pose a threat to Belarus’ sovereignty.  

An increase in Russian troops in Belarus could signal a notable shift in Belarus’ long-held doctrine and strategy.  Belarus has traditionally maintained a policy of neutrality, a concept that Lukashenka has trumpeted regularly over the years.  But what is happening now, and what the proposed constitutional changes in the upcoming referendum appear to open the door to, is a different posture.  First and foremost, this is a critical question for the people of Belarus to consider regarding who made this change and why.

- How do you assess Lukashenka's statement that he is ready to buy modern Russian weaponry and retain it on the territory of Belarus? Among them are medium-range and long-range air defense systems S-400 Triumph, Pantsir-S anti-aircraft systems and Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets.  What measures could be adopted against Lukashenka if he decides to deploy Russian nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus?

Let's go back to the decision by Belarus to surrender its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s, and the importance of that decision.  Belarus chose to forgo nuclear weapons.  And if Lukashenka wants to change that now, I believe his thinking on that is not in line with the thinking of the people of Belarus.  Beyond the nuclear question, if Belarus significantly changed its posture with regard to troops or systems, I would anticipate a reciprocal change to be considered by NATO.  

- As of today, what is the likelihood of the closure of the US Embassy in Belarus in connection with the latest initiatives of the Belarusian authorities?

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk remains open, as it has been since January 1992 – that’s more than 30 years of cooperation and friendship between the United States and the people of Belarus.  In Minsk our diplomats are doing difficult work under challenging circumstances.  We also have a team working on Belarus in Lithuania and other nearby countries, in Washington, and in our missions to international organizations such as the OSCE and at UN agencies.

The Lukashenka regime has taken actions to severely limit our staff, both American diplomats and the local colleagues who are an important part of our work to improve relations between our two countries and peoples.

It is worth noting that United States is not the only diplomatic mission facing such obstacles. The reason the regime does this – telling ambassadors and diplomats to leave Belarus, restricting travel and meetings within the country, forcing embassies to dismiss staff members and close cultural centers – is because the regime seeks to hide what is happening inside Belarus.  With more than 1,000 political prisoners behind bars, hundreds of civil society organizations and independent media outlets shut down and declared extremist, many hundreds of government employees harassed and fired because they expressed an opinion – it is impossible to hide what they are doing.  These actions are incompatible with Belarus’ international obligations, and are causing irreparable harm to Belarus and Belarusians, not just today but into the future.

No matter what the future holds, we will continue to engage with the people of Belarus and support their efforts to shape a more positive future for themselves and their children.

- I would like to thank the United States for the support of the Belarusian people. In particular, on February 3, the U.S. Senate adopted a bipartisan resolution on support of democracy in Belarus. Is there a possibility of the next step being a tougher position of President Biden's administration towards the regime?

The cause of freedom in Belarus has united Washington. And Congressional leadership on Belarus has been in evidence for more than 20 years from both parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

After signing the Belarus Democracy Act of 2020, the Congressional Friends of Belarus Caucus and the Senatorial Free Belarus Caucus were both launched last summer. The Senate resolution on February 3 was the latest demonstration of Congress’ support for the people of Belarus and their democratic aspirations.

President Biden’s leadership in support for a democratic Belarus has been clear.  The President, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor all met in July with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. In August and December the Treasury Department imposed some of the strongest Belarus-related sanctions designations to date, targeting entities and individuals – including state-owned enterprises, government officials, and others – who enable the regime, facilitate its violent repression of the Belarusian people, and violate the rule of law. In addition, President Biden signed a new executive order, which expands our authorities to sanction those in the regime and facilitates our efforts to hold Lukashenka and his regime to account for their continued, violent repression of Belarusians inside and outside the country. And on February 3, just as the winter Olympics started, Secretary of State Blinken announced visa restrictions on Belarusian nationals under the “Khashoggi Ban,” a tool for countering transnational repression. That action targeted multiple Belarusians for their involvement in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activity, including the attempt to forcibly repatriate Belarusian Olympian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya during the Tokyo Olympics last summer. 

-- Speaking of practical steps in support of democracy, on December 8, 2021, the United States imposed tough economic sanctions against Belarusian enterprises affiliated with the authorities. Are new economic sanctions against the authorities in Minsk under consideration by the US?

We are constantly looking at the actions taken by the authorities in Belarus and evaluating the effectiveness of the sanctions in place and other future steps we might take.

It’s important to note that U.S. sanctions are only one piece of a larger puzzle. We coordinate our sanctions actions very closely with partners such as the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and others. We do this to show the regime that the West insists that the authorities in Belarus meet their international obligations and respect the fundamental freedoms and dignity of their own people.

Sanctions are not usually quick fixes.  We have seen Lukashenka take action before, including the release of all political prisoners, in response to sanctions.  And we have seen from recent reactions that the current sanctions are having an impact.

- Is the US ready to use the mechanism of so-called secondary sanctions against those companies that trade with Belarusian enterprises from the blacklist?

We continue to look at the effectiveness of our sanctions and whether they need to be adjusted to achieve the desired outcomes.  

- There are talks that Russia may be disconnected from SWIFT because of its aggressive actions against Ukraine. Would this mean that the Belarusian regime would be also disconnected from this system of payments?

Russia and Belarus are separate countries, and the United States treats them as such.  That is true despite what seem to be frequent efforts to blur the line between Russia and Belarus.

We have seen Lukashenka, for most of his 27 years, turn repeatedly to Russia for help.  And we know that support is not free.  It’s clear Russia is preying on Lukashenka’s vulnerability and calling in those accumulated debts.  There is no escaping that having dedicated nearly three decades in office to claiming to be the guarantor of Belarus’s sovereignty and independence, Lukashenka has increasingly shown that he will trade it all in order to stay in power.

I believe that puts him at odds with the people of Belarus.  I also see that members of the elite are increasingly uncomfortable with where Lukashenka is heading and the speed at which he is taking Belarus closer and closer to Russia.  That is not a concept that I believe has widespread support in Belarus. At all levels, the people of Belarus firmly believe that they, not Moscow, should decide their future.

Belarus and Russia are close partners, with historic ties.  But just as Ukraine is not a province of Russia and is a proud and independent country, Belarus also is its own, independent, sovereign country.

- After President Biden entered office, the US is playing a very big role in the fight against money laundering. It is an open secret that Lukashenka regime uses corruption schemes. Could the US start to look at the regime in Minsk also through the anti-corruption lens?

The State Department and the Treasury Department look through the lens of corruption as we evaluate a wide range of persons and entities for sanctions consideration.  For example, public corruption is specifically mentioned as one of the factors to be considered in determining sanctions in each of the Belarus Democracy Acts passed by the Congress.

And during President Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December, the Administration clearly tied the fight against corruption to efforts to bolster democracy around the world. At that Summit, Secretary Blinken noted that corruption saps resources from governments that could be used for better purposes, it feeds cynicism and mistrust in institutions, and it has an incredibly corrosive effect.  

- Thousands of Belarusians continue to fight for freedom. You have an opportunity to address them through our website. Madame Ambassador, what would you say to them?

Thank you for that opportunity.  I would tell them this:

Despite all the arrests, the violence, the torture, the pressure on independent media and on civil society, the many thousands of Belarusians forced into exile – despite everything that has happened and continues to happen – the desire of the Belarusian people to be free to choose their own leaders and determine their own political future remains evident.

It is important to look at where Lukashenka stands after a year and a half of ignoring and turning away from a political crisis of his own making.  He created this situation. He was unwilling to allow dissenting opinions in the 2020 election campaign; he was unwilling to accept criticism on any issue, whether that was COVID or basic governance. And he bears responsibility for the fraudulent election and the tragic violence that followed.

He has tried to divert attention by generating international crises – the Ryanair incident, the orchestrated migrant crisis, the threatening military posture towards Ukraine.

He has tried to stamp out opposition by jailing thousands of Belarusians, from teenagers to grandparents.  He has forced the closure of dozens of media outlets and hundreds of community organizations. He has driven thousands of Belarusians into exile.  Lukashenka has lost credibility and legitimacy not just in the eyes of the people of Belarus but also around the globe.

Americans understand Belarus is a proud country, rich in culture with a noble history and a promising future. It is your future to determine, and the United States stands with you, as we have for the past 30 years.