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Biden’s Defense of Democracy Can Begin in Belarus

Isolating Europe’s last dictator and welcoming the opposition leader would send a strong message.
December 14, 2020
Biden’s Defense of Democracy Can Begin in Belarus
TOPSHOT - Members of the Belarus diaspora and Ukrainian activists burn white and red smoke grenades during a rally in support of Belarus people protesting vote rigging in the presidential election, outside the Belarusian embassy in Kiev on August 13, 2020. - Thousands of protesters formed human chains and marched in Belarus on August 13, 2020 in a growing wave of peaceful demonstrations over President Alexander Lukashenko's disputed re-election and an ensuing brutal police crackdown. (Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to renew the spirit of democracy at home and abroad and revive America’s moral leadership. The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Belarus provide a unique opportunity for Biden to start strong.

The Washington Post ran an editorial calling on the incoming Biden administration to recognize Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate president of Belarus and invite her to the inauguration. It’s a good start, but the incoming Biden Administration can—and should—do more than that.

In the early days of his presidency, Biden should announce punitive actions against Russia, in coordination with the United States’s European allies, if the Russian military is to move further into Belarus to save the failing Lukashenko regime. Further, the Biden administration should coordinate with allies to provide material support for the protests. The protesters’ English-language banners are pleas for outside help.

Even though Belarus is a small country by population (fewer than 10 million), encouraging freedom and democracy there would help slow the rising tide of authoritarianism. President George W. Bush popularized Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s epithet, “Europe’s last dictator.” But Europe has not been immune to the rise of global authoritarianism, as Andrzej Duda in Poland and Viktor Orbán in Hungary are rapidly eroding democracy in their respective countries. An end to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule will send a clear message to would-be authoritarians in Europe and elsewhere that Biden means business when he talks about renewing the democratic spirit around the world.

There is a second message in an inauguration invitation. President George H.W. Bush popularized the phrase “Europe whole and free.” His 1989 speech repeating the phrase was in the context of the Cold War. Much has changed since then, but two things have not. First, Europe remains the continent with the greatest strategic value to the United States. Second, Europe faces a threat from an autocratic Russia. Inviting Tikhanovskaya to the inauguration will signal that Biden is true to his word about taking the threat posed by Vladimir Putin seriously, and after 12 years of neglect, Europeans will know that they are once more America’s top priority.

On August 9, Belarusians went to the polls to vote in a presidential election process which was widely decried as neither free nor fair. Over the summer, numerous prominent opposition figures and citizens who protested against the regime were detained and given prison sentences.

The woman who has since become the symbol of a democratic Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was unknown before the summer. The 38-year-old stay-at-home mother announced her candidacy after her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a prominent member of the Belarusian opposition, was jailed.

After the sham election, Lukashenko claimed victory with over 80 percent of the vote, and Tikhanovskaya fled to Lithuania. (As Tikhanovsky’s case illustrates, Belarus is not a safe place for opposition politicians.) Protesters speaking out against the fraudulent election were beaten by riot police and arrested by the thousands. Belarusians continue to take to the streets over 100 days after the falsified presidential election, with hundreds of thousands of Belarusians marching in the famous Sunday protests throughout the country.

In exile, Tikhanovskaya has forged relations with leading European officials. German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with her in October, called Tikhanovskaya “courageous,” and stated that her government does not recognize Lukashenko’s declared electoral victory. French President Emmanuel Macron also met with Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius. After the meeting, the French president urged Vladimir Putin, whose government had supported Lukashenko despite an often  frosty relationship and reported personal animosity, to begin communicating with the Belarusian opposition leader, telling Russia’s president that Tikhanovskaya “was open to dialogue with Russia.”

Lithuania has played an indisputable role in fighting for a free and democratic Belarus, a country with which it shares a border of more than 400 miles. In addition to giving Tikhanovskaya a safe haven, Lithuania’s parliament, the Sejm, recognized Tikhanovskaya as the legitimate president of Belarus in a September 10 resolution. The forcefully worded measure states support for the legitimate president of Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, “to hold new and transparent presidential elections in the republic” and deems Lukashenko the “illegitimate head of Belarus,” vowing to treat any of his actions, in both domestic and foreign policy, as “crimes against the Belarusian people.”

The United States has joined its European allies in refusing to recognize the fraudulent election or Lukashenko as the duly elected president of Belarus, but neither President Donald Trump nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met with the Belarusian opposition leader in exile. The U.S. has taken a backseat in a pressing matter of human rights, democratic values, and global leadership in what should be the final such instance of the Obama-Trump era.

But the Trump administration has not been completely idle. In July, Belarusian authorities arrested Vitali Shkliarov, an American citizen and former campaign staffer for President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders, who was visiting family. The Belarusian authorities claimed Shkliarov was plotting to incite riots, alleging that he planned to mobilize protesters behind Tikhanovsky. On October 24, Pompeo spoke with Lukashenko by phone. After the call, a State Department spokesman announced that “the secretary called for the full release and immediate departure from Belarus of wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov and reaffirmed U.S. support for the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus.” Four days later, the authorities released Shkilarov.

Since the August election, the State Department has released numerous statements on the current state of Belarus, including one which criticized Lukashenko’s refusal to let Belarusian Catholic Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, who spoke out in favor of Belarus’s courageous democratic protesters, to reenter the country from exile in Poland.

Diplomatic pressure is always good and necessary, but Americans should demand more of their country, which has traditionally been the beacon of democracy and freedom around the world. President John F. Kennedy went to Europe and said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” President Ronald Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall, the symbol of tyranny in Europe, and said to the leader of the Soviet Union, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union, the struggle for the liberation, freedom, and prosperity of all citizens of Eastern Europe is not over. Lukashenko, a former collective farm boss, is a living continuation of the Soviet empire. After a generation-long lull, Russian foreign policy once again supports autocrats and authoritarians, including in Belarus.

President-elect Biden’s foreign policy mandate is to rebuild alliances, promote human rights, and renew the spirit of democracy. There is no worthier agenda. To demonstrate his seriousness, Biden should begin with Belarus. Advancing Belarus’s freedom is morally good and strategically sound. Biden should hurry up because, if he doesn’t, Putin will. And he can start his Belarus policy on day one, by inviting Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to his inauguration and coordinating with the United States’s allies to support the protesters’ noble struggle for dignity.

Kennedy Lee and Shay Khatiri

Kennedy Lee is a student in the comparative politics of Eurasia master’s program at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.