The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In war, Russia has swallowed up Belarus. Freedom is at stake there, too.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Moscow on Feb. 18. (Sputnik/Via Reuters)
3 min

For more than two decades, Alexander Lukashenko ping-ponged between Russia and the West, extracting what he could from both sides while ruling Belarus with autocratic fervor and more than a little eccentricity. On Feb. 1, 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo grinned as he shook Mr. Lukashenko’s hand in Minsk and promised closer relations with the United States. In May of that year, Mr. Pompeo announced the United States was shipping a tanker full of oil to Belarus in a gesture of goodwill.

The hopes were misplaced. In the months after meeting Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Lukashenko stole the August 2020 presidential election, forcing the actual winner, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, out of the country. Confronted by massive public demonstrations against the election fraud, Mr. Lukashenko responded with beatings and arrests.

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Now, Russia has all but swallowed up Belarus to wage a war against Ukraine. For many years, there has been periodic talk about merging Belarus, population 9.4 million, and Russia, both former Soviet republics. But it was mostly just talk until the protests broke out over the election. Mr. Lukashenko reached for a life raft from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who advised him how to suppress the demonstrations and provided aid.

Now, Mr. Putin is extracting his tribute. Last month, Russian troops staged exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, and the troops remained in place after the exercises were over. Missiles and bombers aimed at Ukraine are being launched from Belarus. Some 30,000 Russian troops have moved through Belarus or remain there. There are signs Belarusian forces will also participate in the assault on Ukraine. Mr. Lukashenko also rammed through a constitutional referendum on Feb. 27 creating a new body that could eclipse the parliament, giving Mr. Lukashenko still stronger control. The changes would also give him a chance to remain in office until 2035. The referendum revoked the pledge Belarus made to be a non-nuclear state, meaning that Russia could move nuclear weapons onto the territory of its satrap, bordering NATO.

After the election chicanery, the Belarusian democratic opposition, led by Ms. Tikhanovskaya, demanded new elections, marched peacefully and showed great forbearance in the face of Mr. Lukashenko’s violent crackdown. Ms. Tikhanovskaya has now shifted to a more aggressive challenge, announcing formation of a movement in Belarus to oppose the war on Ukraine and get the Russian troops out of Belarus. “No one wants this war except Putin,” she said, declaring that for “the achievement of the goals of the Movement, any action that is not aimed at hurting citizens’ lives and health on purpose is welcome.” This suggests more than just marching and waving banners.

Recently, both the European Union and the United States have announced new sanctions on Belarusian banks, businesses and officials. But if Mr. Lukashenko is going to enable Russia’s misbegotten war, then it is time that U.S. sanctions on his regime match those on Russia, including on all the oligarchs who support Mr. Lukashenko, on the central bank and on Mr. Lukashenko personally.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko want to extinguish democracy — or what small flames of it remain — in Belarus and Russia, and to bury a free Ukraine. They must be stopped.

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