Trump pressed on Belarus protests against Lukashenko

Trump pressed on Belarus protests against Lukashenko 1

Demands for the ouster of longtime Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko grew louder Tuesday as President Trump for the first time questioned whether the man known as “Europe’s last dictator” is blocking a key chance for democracy in the former Soviet republic.

The country’s increasingly emboldened opposition, which has defied the government’s efforts to crack down on dissent, is openly seeking U.S. and international support to overturn what it says was a fraudulent presidential election Aug. 9 and force Mr. Lukashenko, a onetime state farm manager, to step down after a quarter of a century in power.

Lukashenko made a big fraud of the presidential elections,” Valery Tsepkalo, former ambassador to the U.S. and now a prominent opposition figure, said Tuesday. Like opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, he recently fled his home country to avoid a government crackdown on critics.

“Western countries should not recognize the results,” Mr. Tsepkalo told a webinar hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Washington has been far less vocal that many European capitals, including many of Belarus‘ Western neighbors, who are watching to see whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to exploit the unrest in Minsk.

In his first public comments on the turmoil in the former Soviet state, Mr. Trump stopped short of openly accusing Mr. Lukashenko of committing election fraud. He told reporters more vaguely that “it doesn’t seem like there’s too much democracy there in Belarus.”

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Mr. Lukashenko remains defiant. In a meeting of his security council Tuesday, he accused the opposition of attempting to “seize power” and of trying to drive a wedge between his government and Russia.

The standoff leaves the Trump administration facing mounting pressure from activists to more aggressively back Belarusian protesters at a moment when Russia appears caught off guard by the sudden uprising in Belarus. Mr. Lukashenko has long toed a delicate line in relations between Moscow and the West.

European Union officials, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have all spoken directly with Mr. Putin about the mounting unrest in Belarus.

Ms. Merkel told Mr. Putin on Tuesday that authorities in Minsk must “enter into a national dialogue with the opposition and society to overcome the crisis.” Mr. Macron urged the Russian leader to foster “calm and dialogue,” according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

The International Crisis Group cautioned in an analysis against framing the meltdown in Minsk as an East-West standoff and called on Europe, the U.S. and Russia to avoid meddling and the risk of an escalation.

“Either direct Russian military intervention or heavy-handed Western efforts to foster a transition would risk transforming this crisis into the NATO-Russia standoff it is not and turn the people of Belarus into pawns,” the think tank wrote.

But Mr. Lukashenko’s critics say the West must not stand by while Belarusians fight for democracy.

The European Union, NATO and the Trump administration have called the Aug. 9 vote as neither free nor fair, but they have yet to openly align with protesters in Minsk.

Mr. Lukashenko, meanwhile, has bluntly rejected protester demands that he step down after a crackdown on peaceful demonstrations. He had officially recorded a widely questioned 80% of the vote to win a sixth term and extend his rule.

More workers in Belarus joined a nationwide strike Tuesday calling for his ouster. Mr. Lukashenko’s attempt Monday to rally a once-loyal national labor force backfired. His remarks at a state-run factory were interrupted by a crowd chanting, “Leave.”

A demonstration unfolded Tuesday in Minsk in front of a detention center where the husband of Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, Mr. Lukashenko’s top challenger in the election, is being held.

Ms. Tsikhanouskaya ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko after the jailing of her husband, Sergei, a popular opposition blogger. After the election, in which the government claimed the unified opposition candidate got only 10% of the vote, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya suddenly left Belarus for Lithuania in a move her campaign said was made under duress.

She has since declared her readiness to act as a national leader to facilitate a new election. Her top associate, Maria Kolesnikova, has claimed an opposition “coordination council” was being formed to negotiate the transition of power.

Mr. Lukashenko, who has a reputation as a wily survivor in the landlocked nation, signed a decree Tuesday honoring over 300 Belarusian police officers for their service. The move apparently was intended to secure the loyalty of law enforcement agencies amid the swelling demonstrations and strikes.

Opposition figures denounced the awards as an insult after recent suppression of protests with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs. Nearly 7,000 people were detained, hundreds were injured and at least two people died.

“The authorities should understand that they are losing control,” Yuri Zakharov, head of an independent miners’ union, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Only Lukashenko’s resignation and punishment of those in charge of rigging and beatings can calm us down. The strike will continue and grow until he steps down.”

Russia’s uncertain role

The situation is vexing for the Trump administration, which has delicate relations with Mr. Lukashenko given his on-again, off-again flirtations with the Kremlin over the decades.

The Belarusian leader long ago drew the ire of Western powers with authoritarian tactics while securing power after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. By the early 2000s, the U.S. and EU had hit his government with sanctions.

But the hard line has blurred over the past decade, with Mr. Lukashenko freeing many political prisoners and allowing some opposition activities. When Mr. Trump took office, U.S. officials were trying to improve long-strained ties with Mr. Lukashenko and wean Minsk from its economic and political dependence on the Kremlin.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February became the first top U.S. diplomat in more than 25 years to travel to Belarus, bringing with him offers to sell U.S. oil and gas to Minsk to reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

Many analysts believe Mr. Lukashenko cleverly embraced the American overtures while bluntly exploiting them. He has used the prospect of warmer ties with the West — perhaps even hosting some NATO activities on Belarusian soil — in a bid to extract lucrative oil and gas subsidies from the Kremlin.

Mr. Lukashenko’s current difficulties come from a growing number of loans from China and an apparently strained relationship with Mr. Putin. Early this year, the Kremlin cut supplies of subsidized oil to Belarusian refineries. Analysts say the move deprived the Lukashenko government of some $700 million in oil product exports to the West.

But Russia’s response to the upheaval in Minsk has been anything but clear-cut.

When pro-democracy unrest has hit other former Soviet states, most notably Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin pounced at the chance to denounce allegedly Western-engineered “color revolutions” and used to crises to increase Moscow’s influence and even seize territory militarily.

But if Russia has a strategy for Belarus, it’s obscure. Some think Mr. Putin is happy to let his old comrade twist slowly in the wind.

Moscow has been tight-lipped about the protests against Mr. Lukashenko, suggesting Russia was caught flatflooted by the election protests and doubts their staying power. It could also be that Russia is struggling to see a clear path forward given that relations between Moscow and Minsk are a shape-shifting mix of cooperation and suspicion.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova last week complained of “clear attempts of external interference in the affairs of a sovereign state to split society” in Belarus. She did not elaborate.

U.S. hesitance

Mr. Trump has similarly held back from taking an explicit stand. The president said Tuesday that he “supports democracy” as people in Belarus take to the streets but added that a specific message to the protesters or Russia will come later.

“We are speaking to lots of people. We’ll be speaking at the appropriate time to Russia, and we’ll be speaking to other people that are involved, but it’s certainly a very big march,” Mr. Trump said during a White House event on women’s suffrage.

Mr. Pompeo said over the weekend during a swing through Eastern Europe that the U.S. has been talking with the European Union about the burgeoning crisis.

The goal, Mr. Pompeo said Saturday in Warsaw, was to “try to help as best we can the Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom.”

Mr. Trump tried to draw a contrast between the protests in Minsk and demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, and other U.S. cities, saying the ones abroad were more peaceful.

“I like seeing democracy. Democracy is a very important word,” Mr. Trump said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s too much democracy there in Belarus.”

The International Crisis Group warned Tuesday that both the West and Russia should tread with care to increase the chance of a peaceful transition of power in Belarus.

Lukashenko’s fall, if it comes, need not be a geostrategic loss for Moscow any more than his survival would be a victory over Brussels or Washington,” it said. “Instead of competing, Russia and other European states would be better advised to work together to help Belarusians chart their own path forward, including through mediation involving Tsikhanouskaya (now in Lithuania for her safety) and her team.”

Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, a nonresident fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, appeared to agree.

Mr. Inozemtsev said during the think tank’s webinar Tuesday that he is “absolutely sure” Mr. Lukashenko will ultimately leave Belarus.

The “only way forward” for the West and for Moscow is to recognize Ms. Tsikhanouskaya and work with her toward organizing “free and fair elections in six months.”

⦁ Tom Howell contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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