President Biden’s campaign for the White House featured a pledge to “revitalize our national commitment to advancing human rights and democracy around the world.” Last month, he declared that the United States is in a “contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.” Mr. Biden’s ambitions have yet to be matched by action. But next week he has an opportunity to show he means business.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who overwhelmingly won last August’s presidential election in Belarus, only to see her rightful victory stolen away, is coming to Washington. She represents all that the United States and Mr. Biden hold dear: a popularly elected leader, and a champion of democracy, rule of law and civil society who has courageously stood up against dictatorship in Europe. Mr. Biden should meet with her at the White House to demonstrate to the people of Belarus — and the world — that the United States is prepared to defend democracy and confront autocrats, and not just in news releases.
Belarus has been ruled since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, who never abandoned the misguided Soviet model, and relies on his security services, still known as the KGB, to keep him and his dictatorship in power. He’s an erratic opportunist, veering between East and West in foreign policy but always ruling internally with an iron hand. Before the election, Mr. Lukashenko went after Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s husband, Sergei, a popular YouTuber who summoned thousands of people to sign ballot petitions with an anti-corruption slogan.
When he was imprisoned (and he still is), Ms. Tikhanovskaya got on the ballot and, with two other women, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, inspired a vast wave of enthusiasm for change. They defeated Mr. Lukashenko by a large margin, but Mr. Lukashenko then declared himself the winner. This ignited massive protest marches, week after week — the people of Belarus were insulted and furious at his theft of their election. Mr. Lukashenko forced Ms. Tikhanovskaya out of Belarus and then proceeded to crack the heads of demonstrators, hauling hundreds of them into prisons, where they have been beaten and tortured. His regime used a phony bomb threat to seize one independent journalist from a flight crossing Belarus airspace.
Just this week, on Wednesday, at least a dozen people were detained in raids by Mr. Lukashenko’s regime against the Vyasna human rights center and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, and on Friday, the authorities launched arrests and raids of journalists’ offices, breaking down the door of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Minsk. “Again a massive attack by security forces on journalists across the country,” said the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
Ms. Tikhanovskaya is at the front lines of the contest between democracy and dictatorship. No single visitor to the White House could carry more symbolism and meaning at this juncture.