It’s Time for the US and Europe to Step Up and Stand With Belarus
By Nick Lokker | Aug. 18, 2020
Belarus is in crisis. The August 9 presidential elections have prompted widespread allegations of vote-rigging in favor of the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, with citizens swarming the streets of cities throughout the country to express their outrage with what they perceive as a blatant violation of the democratic process. Uncertainty looms as to whether the demonstrations will lead to brutal repression or genuine change in what has often been deemed ‘Europe’s last dictatorship.’ The United States and European Union should do everything in their power to ensure the latter of these outcomes.
The election followed a tense summer which saw former English teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya run an unexpectedly strong opposition campaign, attracting massive crowds to her rallies despite crackdowns by the Lukashenko regime. Tikhanovskaya emerged onto the political scene after the arrest of her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, a prominent activist who had announced he would run against Lukashenko. Her platform was simple: genuine democratic rights for Belarusians, including free, fair elections and the release of political prisoners.
Predictably, the election was anything but free and fair. Despite clear evidence of Tikhanovskaya’s strong support in the country, authorities claimed she had won only 9.9% of the vote. While the true figure is impossible to know, a small number of polling stations that used observers to protect against fraud revealed that around 70% of voters cast their ballots for Tikhanovskaya. This enormous disparity combined with the unprecedented size of Tikhanovskaya’s campaign rallies suggests serious electoral fraud by the government.
For many citizens, this flagrant deceit was too much to take. Progressively larger crowds of Belarusians have shown up each day since the evening of the election to participate in demonstrations nationwide, expressing their frustration and demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. While these protests have been peaceful, the response of the government has not — security forces have reportedly used stun grenades, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition against the demonstrators.
Such a violent crackdown should alone be enough to draw forceful condemnation from the West. As supposed champions of democracy and the rule of law, the US and EU have a duty to stand with the courageous people of Belarus risking their lives for these values. Yet, if an appeal to values is insufficient, one can make a strong appeal to interests as well: a democratic Belarus is essential to the longstanding shared strategic goal of a Europe “whole, free, and at peace.”
Some analysts have argued for restraint on the grounds that Vladimir Putin may attempt to invade and annex Belarus in the event of Lukashenko’s downfall. In support of this argument, they point to Putin’s persistent push for Lukashenko to further integrate Belarus with Russia under the Union State framework, which seems to be evidence of his desire to take control of the country. As another government in Belarus would likely be less friendly to integration with Russia than Lukashenko has been, they believe Putin could resort to force to achieve this aim.
However, this view ignores a few key factors. First, a change in leadership may not be a great disappointment to Putin. The relationship between Lukashenko and Putin has deteriorated significantly in recent months since progress on integration talks came to a halt in late 2019. More importantly, Russia’s interests in Belarus are largely economic rather than territorial given all the practical difficulties that its absorption would pose. The probability of an invasion is in fact quite low and should therefore not deter the US and EU from standing up for Belarus.
Unfortunately, the Western response has thus far been underwhelming. Across Europe, leaders have resorted to their standard expressions of concern in the face of international crises, with European Commission President Urusla von der Leyen urging “that the votes in [the] election are counted” and Angela Merkel’s spokesman voicing his “strong doubts” about the results. Meanwhile in the US, Donald Trump has remained silent, though the State Department and presidential challenger Joe Biden have released their own statements on the situation, both of which call for the Lukashenko regime to “respect the rights” of the protestors and condemn the use of violence.
While words are a start, there is a need for real action. Assuming Lukashenko fails to resign and release political prisoners, the best option is to impose targeted sanctions both on him and those in his regime responsible for the repression. Members of the European Parliament’s center-right EPP and centrist Renew Europe groups have already called for sanctions, but it remains unclear whether there will be consensus among Member States given Hungary’s threat of a veto. Across the Atlantic, such a response is not even under discussion.
Despite these initial discouraging signs, a joint transatlantic response to the crisis in Belarus is a goal worthy of pursuing. History has shown time and again that when the US and Europe work together, they can have a powerful impact on the world. It is time to once again join together in support of the core values of democracy and rule of law that have bound and continue to bind the Atlantic alliance.
Nick Lokker is a first-year master’s student at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he focuses on European and Diplomatic Studies. His primary interests are in transatlantic relations, European security, and EU-Russia relations. He has previously interned at the European Parliament and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, and speaks French, Spanish, and German.
The views reflected in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of “The Transatlanticist” or European Horizons.