The United States will work closely with the EU to raise pressure on embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and bring about new elections in the country gripped by protests since a disputed vote last month, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Wednesday.
"We are coordinating closely with our transatlantic partners, including reviewing significant new targeted sanctions to hold accountable anybody who is involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus," Biegun told reporters in a conference call.
Biegun, who visited Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Austria last week to discuss the upheaval in Belarus, noted that the U.S. already had sanctions in place against Lukashenko, the country’s long-time strongman ruler, and other top officials. The EU lifted most sanctions against Lukashenko and his close allies in 2016, but is now working to reimpose punitive measures.
"We are working closely with the Europeans as they reimpose their sanctions so that we are marching in lockstep with our European and Canadian partners," Biegun said.
The EU sanctions were lifted in 2016 partly in response to Lukashenko’s release of political prisoners including Nikolai Statkevich, a rival who ran against him for president in 2010.
But ahead of this year’s election, Lukashenko resorted to the same tactics, suppressing the opposition and arresting several rival candidates including Sergei Tikhanovsky, who is still jailed and whose wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya ultimately appeared on the ballot in his place.
Lukashenko’s claim that he won 80 percent of the vote set off a wave of large protests, which his security forces have tried to squash with mass arrests and at times brutal violence.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement this week citing at least 450 documented cases of torture and calling on the Lukashenko government to end "forced disappearances" of demonstrators. At least six detained protesters remain unaccounted for, the U.N. said, although Tikhanovskaya and some other members of the opposition say the number is far higher.
In the conference call Wednesday, Biegun said the U.S. viewed the situation in Belarus as an internal conflict, not a confrontation between the West and Russia. He also demanded that Belarus release Vitaly Shklyarov, a U.S. citizen and political strategist, who had been working in the country.
"I want to emphatically state the Belarusian government needs to release Vitaly Shklyarov now and drop the charges," Biegun said. "He has been falsely accused, falsely charged and he is unjustly detained."
Biegun said it was clear Russia was seeking to exert influence in Belarus in support of Lukashenko but that after visiting Moscow, he believed the Kremlin too was tiring of the erratic Belarusian leader, who has appeared in public carrying a machine gun.
But Biegun said the U.S. would not seek to compete with Moscow for influence in Minsk, where Russian officials have reportedly been in talks about renegotiating huge amounts of debt owed by Belarus to prop up the regime.
"This is not a contest between the United States and Russia for the loyalties of Belarus," he said, adding: "Belarus, in fact, and the Belarusian people, have a long history and a deep inclination toward cooperative relations with the Russian Federation.
"The Russian government may or may not decide to renegotiate or forgive the substantial debt that has been accumulated by the mismanagement of Belarus under the current regime and that’s their choice — that’s their money and it’s their money to give away and it’s their money to waste," he said. "But I think in their heart of hearts, the Russian government knows exactly what we do: that this is not going to go one forever — that after 26 years the Belarusian people are clearly across the entire society, from labor unions to factory workers to students to intellectuals to medical workers to average citizens, parents and mothers, fathers, that they are demanding their rights in Belarus under their own constitution as well as under international charters.
"And no amount of debt relief, no amount of policing can overcome the cumulative courage of a population that’s had enough," Biegun said. "The ruler of Belarus clearly still holds power but he has lost his people."
Read more: politico.com