Joe Biden’s New Opportunity in Belarus

January 27, 2021 Topic: Belarus Region: Europe Tags: Joe BidenBelarusRussiaEuropean UnionBelarus Protests

Joe Biden’s New Opportunity in Belarus

The changes in Belarusian society suggest that the future of the country is with Europe. The United States must work clearly, but with finesse, to ensure that Belarus’s real leaders and civil society are able to succeed.

A similar plot appears to be being prepared for Belarus’s two big oil refineries. In 2011, a Russian state oil company, Slavneft, became the dominant owner of the Naftan oil refinery. Now, Russian state oil companies are circling around the other big Belarusian oil refinery, Mozyr. If they succeed in these maneuvers, four Russian companies will control two-thirds of Belarus’s exports to the West.

How the West Can Influence Belarus

The West must place its bet on the country’s future by financing civil society, including journalists, activists, and human rights defenders, and Belarusian students and scholars in the West.

At the same time, the West needs to focus on the sources of power propping up the Belarusian dictator. The best way to do that is more sanctions. (For a discussion of what sanctions the West levied in 2020, read the full paper.) These should primarily be of three kinds: personal sanctions on violators of human rights and on people and entities that handle Lukashenka’s personal finances, but also conditional sanctions on Russian companies and oligarchs that take over Belarusian companies at the behest of the Kremlin. Unlike previous sanctions, these sanctions should not be directed against Belarusian companies or the Belarusian economy because that would only make Belarus even more dependent on Russia economically. The exception is companies that handle the personal funds of the Lukashenka circle. Therefore, Western sanctions should focus on Russian companies that exploit Belarus’s economic hardship to purchase Belarusian assets cheaply and the businessmen behind them should be sanctioned.

The ongoing protests in Belarus offer an immediate opportunity for Biden to seize and to show strong, transatlantic leadership. We urge the Biden administration to take the following actions as a tangible manifestation of U.S. leadership, values, and commitment to democratic change in Europe. 

To promote the growth of the democratic movement in Belarus, strengthen the current opposition leader, and weaken support for Lukashenka:

1. Biden should meet with Tsikhanouskaya within his first 100 days as president of the United States.

2. Biden should designate a senior official to coordinate sanctions with the EU, the UK, and Canada.

3. Biden should sign an executive order on Belarus that would sanction hundreds of Belarusian officials who violate human rights to serve as a deterrent against further escalation of repression. We can provide a list for consideration.

4. The United States should refer to Lukashenka as the former president of Belarus. U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher should take up her post in Minsk and visit Vilnius as appropriate but not present her credentials to Lukashenka.

5. The United States should sanction companies that handle Lukashenka’s private finances.

6. The United States should threaten Russian companies and businessmen with sanctions in case they take over Belarusian companies or support Lukashenka’s regime financially or politically. The United States should also sanction Russian media and journalists participating in propaganda campaigns against the Belarus protest movement.

7. Congress should give specific guidance to the State Department that it spend no less than $200 million annually on civil society and media support for Belarus.

8. Congress should double the budget of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL’s) Belarus Service, which is overseen by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). In addition, Congress and the leadership of the USAGM and RFE/RL should speak out forcefully when RFE/RL journalists are detained in Belarus and demand their immediate release.

9. The secretary of state should designate a senior official to oversee all assistance to Belarus and report on it quarterly to Congress.

10. The United States (along with the EU) should send humanitarian assistance to the opposition by channels that actually reach them in Belarus.

11. The secretary of state should facilitate and encourage the unconditional release of and amnesty for all political prisoners, urge the cessation of violence, and insist on an inclusive national dialogue to solve the political crisis in Belarus and then hold free and fair elections.

12. The United States should use its power in international organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN, to ensure their active participation in solving the Belarus crisis by mediating the dialogue, creating additional pressure on the regime, and collecting evidence of crimes to eventually bring the perpetrators to justice.

To manage the Russian reaction to developments in Belarus with a view to preventing a Kremlin crackdown:

1. The Biden administration should privately caution the opposition to avoid any signal suggesting its interest in joining the EU or NATO and publicly explain its position in Belarus as only supporting the right of the people of Belarus to choose their own leader and future.

2. Along with the EU, the Biden administration should maintain regular diplomatic dialogue with Moscow, stressing that the ongoing protest movement is only about Belarus’s domestic politics, not geopolitics. The initial aims are an immediate end to the repression, release of prisoners, and the launch of a genuine, inclusive political dialogue that can lay the basis for new, internationally supervised elections.

3. The Biden administration should draw a clear line on conditional sanctions: Moscow should understand clearly that it will face additional sanctions if it sends security forces (overtly or covertly, including military or personnel support) to Belarus to prop up Lukashenka or crack down on Belarusian protesters.

These three recommendations are a package and must be carried out together. It would be disastrous to accommodate the Kremlin by discouraging Belarus from turning to the EU while not establishing clear redlines against Moscow’s potential intervention in Belarus.

In conclusion, the changes in Belarusian society suggest that the future of the country is with Europe. The smart play for the West is to help ensure that the opposition and civil society survive this treacherous period and that the Kremlin does not crack down. The United States must work clearly, but with finesse, to ensure that Belarus’s real leaders and civil society are able to succeed.

Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

John E. Herbst is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and NATO deputy secretary general.

Editor’s Note: This essay was first published by the Atlantic Council and has been shortened with permission.

Image: Reuters.