WASHINGTON – The main leader of Belarus’ embattled opposition on Tuesday sought and apparently won U.S. support for increasing pressure on the country’s authoritarian leader.
In meetings with senior U.S. officials, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she asked the Biden administration for “active and non-symbolic” measures to be taken in response to a massive crackdown on Belarus dissidents by President Alexander Lukashenko’s government.
In response, the White House said national security adviser Jake Sullivan pledged to hold the government accountable for its actions to quell massive protests against disputed elections last year, including through the imposition of new sanctions on the former Soviet republic.
“We will discuss possible international efforts to isolate the regime politically and economically, to make it toxic and costly, including for Russia,” Tsikhanouskaya told reporters. “We know, and we understand, that only Belarusian themselves can bring about democratic changes, but we hope for American active and non-symbolic participation.”
Tsikhanouskaya was Lukashenko’s main challenger in the August 2020 election and was forced to leave the country after the polls that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. She was in Washington for meetings with senior administration officials and lawmakers.
Her visit came as authorities in Belarus continued a major crackdown on Lukashenko opponents. Dozens of independent media outlets have been raided and journalists arrested along with civic leaders and human rights groups, prompting condemnations from President Joe Biden and others.
“President Biden says that the world is struggling between autocracy and democracy, so the front line of the struggle is in Belarus at the moment," Tsikhanouskaya said. “As a champion of democracy, the USA can get help get things done.”
Her message, delivered on Monday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and on Tuesday to Sullivan, was well received.
“Mr. Sullivan conveyed American support for the people of Belarus and respect for the courage and determination of the opposition, including Mrs. Tsikhanouskaya, in the struggle for democracy and human rights,” the White House said in a statement. “The United States, together with partners and allies, will continue to hold the Lukashenko regime accountable for its actions, including through the imposition of sanctions.”
Months of protests rocked Belarus after Lukashenko’s August 2020 election to a sixth term in a vote that the opposition and the West denounced as severely flawed.
Belarusian authorities responded to opposition demonstrations with a massive crackdown, including police beating thousands of demonstrators and arresting more than 35,000 people. Leading opposition figures have been jailed or forced to leave the country, while independent media outlets have had their offices searched and their journalists arrested.
The West has responded to the crackdown by imposing sanctions on Belarus. The European Union and the U.S. ramped up the restrictions after Belarus in May diverted a passenger jet to Minsk to arrest a dissident journalist. The government in neighboring Lithuania has accused Belarusian authorities of organizing a flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa in retaliation.