Belarus: what will be the new strategy of the Biden administration?
The new administration should invite Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the White House within the first 100 days of its work, according to the authors of the Atlantic Council report
In light of the ongoing crisis in Belarus and the inauguration of the new US President, the Washington Atlantic Council presented on Thursday, January 27, a report of its experts with recommendations for the new administration in relation to Belarus.
Joe Biden, who has repeatedly spoken out in support of democratic development in Belarus and decisive actions by Washington in this direction, has «historic opportunity» in order to break the dictatorship of Lukashenka, the authors of the report say «Biden and Belarus: a strategy for the new administration».
Former US Ambassador to Ukraine and Head of the Eurasian Center at the Atlantic Council of Washington John Herbst (John Herbst) noted during the presentation of the report that the United States had faced a dilemma in its policy towards Belarus for many years. On the one hand, Washington supports the preservation of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and, accordingly, its independence from Moscow. With another – The United States stands for democracy and an open society in Belarus. Pressure on Lukashenka in order to ensure democratic freedoms in the country leads to the fact that he begins to threaten some kind of deeper integration with Russia..
«In the past, this has led to a certain amount of conflict and tension in our politics., – says the former ambassador. – But to encourage and defend the democratic movement in Belarus – in our interests».
To achieve democracy in Belarus, the authors of the report propose a number of measures for the new administration, including helping to strengthen the legitimacy of the opposition and its leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as opposed to the illegitimacy of Lukashenka. Thus, the new US ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, notes Herbst, should not present her credentials to Lukashenka and devote most of her time to work in Vilnius, where Tikhanovskaya’s office is also located today. Also, the new administration should appoint coordinators for sanctions and organization of assistance to the opposition and the people of Belarus, while this assistance should be significantly increased.
«We also need to send a very clear signal to Moscow that if they intervene with their repressive apparatus – whether it is the secret police, the security forces of the internal affairs bodies or the armed forces – to suppress the people of Belarus and support Lukashenko or a similar alternative, there will be serious sanctions against the Russian economy and against Russian officials», – adds Herbst.
Deputy John Herbst Melinda Haring (Melinda Haring) emphasizes that after the August elections, Belarusians were able to raise about $ 10 million through crowdfunding to support victims of repression and the fight against the Lukashenka regime, but today this is not enough. The country needs more help from Europe and the United States, and if it does not come, then the protest movement can greatly weaken.
«Our [from the US] level of aid is negligible, it is about $ 30 million, while we need about $ 200 million.», – says Haring. These funds should go, among other things, to support civil society, independent media, and provide legal and economic assistance to victims of repression, she adds. And in order to overcome the restrictions imposed by the Lukashenka regime on the transfer of funds to the country, it is necessary to find alternative solutions.
The new administration should also invite Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to the White House during the first 100 days of its work, the expert emphasizes..
Former US Ambassador to Russia and an expert at the Washington Atlantic Council Alexander Vershbow (Alexander Vershbow) notes that the Kremlin’s fear of the so-called “color revolutions” forced the Kremlin to hastily take a course to support Lukashenka, which in fact does not suit him. By refusing any dialogue with Tikhanovskaya’s team and declaring the Coordination Council illegal, the Kremlin actually joined in the repression of Lukashenka’s regime, which incites the people of Belarus against Russia..
However, initially there were no such sentiments in society, and the protests did not have a geopolitical vector either towards the West or Russia, says the former diplomat. The Kremlin underestimated the accumulated discontent of the people of Belarus after 26 years of authoritarian rule by Lukashenka, and Moscow’s phobia of street protests and regime change forced Moscow to choose a policy that «cornered her».
Now the Kremlin is trying to distance itself from Lukashenka, Vershbow adds, including by convincing the latter not to run in new elections. However, it is unlikely that Lukashenka plans to leave, and the situation is becoming increasingly polarized.. «So, the nightmare scenario that Moscow is trying to avoid may well happen., – he says. – Especially if the protests continue every weekend as we have seen so far.».
Economist and expert at the Atlantic Council Anders Aslund (Anders Aslund), in turn, notes that when developing sanctions policy, Western countries should be very careful about economic sanctions against Belarus. Despite the fact that large state-owned companies are the main financial source for the Lukashenka regime and support for his security forces, the West should take into account that the Belarusian economy is extremely dependent on Russia and sanctions can aggravate this dependence..
At the same time, the economist emphasizes that despite the $ 1.5 billion loan provided by Russia in September this year, the country lacks much more for 2021 – about $ 6 billion. At the same time, in conditions when the economy of Belarus has been stagnating since 2012, a number of business enterprises are suffering from the repressions of the Lukashenka regime, and international organizations or the West do not provide new loans, it is likely that Russian business will begin to more actively acquire Belarusian companies. This trend is already being observed, the economist added. At the same time, Russian business is likely to receive funds for the purchase of Belarusian enterprises from Russian state banks..
«Essentially, Putin is saying that his most loyal oligarchs are allowed billions of dollars in funding from Russian state-owned banks to buy Belarusian companies cheaply., – says Aslund. – And this would completely bind the economy of Belarus, and this must be avoided».
If the West imposes sanctions on Belarusian companies taken over by Russian ones, this will also not be true, he said: «Sanctions should be imposed against these Russian companies, as well as Sberbank and VTB».
At the same time, it is currently unclear to what extent Lukashenka is ready to agree to the sale of state-owned companies, despite the financial difficulties of the regime..
Foreign Affairs Advisor to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Valery Kovalevsky, (Valery Kavaleuski), who took part in the discussion of the report, notes that the rhetoric that pressure on Lukashenka will bring him closer to Russia is not new and has been used by the regime itself for years. West’s reluctance to push Lukashenka into the hands of the Kremlin, «paralyzed» the policy of Western countries in relation to Belarus, said the adviser to Tikhanovskaya.
«The problem with the argument that it is possible to push Lukashenko even more towards Russia is that Lukashenko is already very close to Russia and extremely dependent on it., – says Kovalevsky. – At the same time, Lukashenko is very suspicious of Russia. […] He is as suspicious of Russia as he is of the West, because he believes that both of these centers of power of international influence challenge his power».
Advisor to Tikhanovskaya also notes that the new US president is well aware of the events in Belarus, and the absence of the Belarusian issue on the agenda in Joe Biden’s first phone call to the Russian president was somewhat unexpected..
«At this stage, I think the most important thing that Belarusians expect [from the Biden administration] – these are concrete steps that will be tangible and effective», – adds Kovalevsky. These steps can be economic sanctions, continued non-recognition of Lukashenka’s legitimacy and the implementation of the one adopted by the US Congress at the end of December last year. «The Act on Democracy, Human Rights and Sovereignty of Belarus». One of the provisions of this law obliges the US intelligence community to prepare a report on Lukashenka’s financial assets, which «did a lot to harm the Belarusian economy and steal money from people», notes the Belarusian oppositionist.
«Finally, it is very important for the US to engage with Russia in order, first, to keep it from abusing Lukashenka’s weakness, but also to prevent it from supporting Lukashenka’s violence against peaceful demonstrators.», – notes adviser Tikhanovskaya. Russia can play «constructive role» in resolving the Belarusian crisis, and Tikhanovskaya’s team always emphasizes this, he adds