The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The West can’t coddle Belarus’s authoritarian leader anymore

Recent events expose the illusion of Minsk’s democratic progress

An activist holds up posters with the face of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday. (Efram Lukatsky/AP)
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In February 2020, Mike Pompeo became the first American secretary of state to visit Belarus in 26 years. After a meeting with President Alexander Lukashenko, he told the country’s foreign minister and assembled reporters the visit was “a bit overdue” and that the United States was committed to “Belarusian sovereignty.” Several months earlier, national security adviser John Bolton also made the trip to Minsk in service of normalizing U.S.-Belarusian relations and had what he called “a fascinating conversation.”

These efforts were the culmination of years of rapprochement with the Belarusian regime, and last summer, they failed spectacularly. Lukashenko rigged the country’s August 2020 presidential election and launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters. The failure continued this week, when he ordered the military hijacking of a passenger airliner to arrest an opposition journalist. What’s happening now in Belarus shows, more starkly than ever, that anyone who believed U.S.-Belarusian relations had reached a substantive high point a year ago was sorely mistaken.

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At the time of Pompeo’s visit, most Americans did not spare a thought for Belarus. Lukashenko has led the country of roughly 10 million, known colloquially as the “last dictatorship in Europe,” since the presidential office was established in 1994. The Belarusian government has oscillated between pursuing closer relations with the West and Russia for years, restricting and repressing human rights and political freedoms when Lukashenko senses a threat to his grip on power, and relaxing them to curry favor with Western governments when relations with Russia sour. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko have a notoriously strained relationship, Russia maintains military bases in Belarus, and the countries are economically integrated; Belarus exports more than 46 percent of its goods to Russia, and Moscow holds about 38 percent of Belarus’s national debt. Most importantly, Putin maintains political influence over Belarus and does not want to see it go the way of Ukraine and reorient toward the West.

Still, the political pendulum in Belarus has swung between Russia and the West in the past 15 years. In 2006, the so-called “Denim Revolution” brought tens of thousands to the streets after a rigged election in 2005. It was suppressed by the state security services, still known as the KGB. After another fraudulent vote in 2010, protesters gathered again — and again met state-sponsored violence. This time, Lukashenko threw his opponents in jail, drawing harsh sanctions from the United States and the European Union. On the eve of the 2015 elections, those political prisoners were released, the election passed without incident and Western sanctions were lifted. Belarusian Nobel Literature Prize Laureate Svetlana Alexievch presciently warned that despite Lukashenko’s seemingly friendlier relations with the West, Belarus remained “a soft dictatorship.”

The State Department pursued what it called a “small steps” policy toward closer cooperation with Belarus during the Obama administration. Focused on slowly increasing the number of U.S. Embassy staff and eventually sending an ambassador to Minsk, it also sought economic and security cooperation. The hope was that through these small steps, Belarus might slowly develop more independence from Russia.

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The policy was expanded in the Trump administration’s State Department, with high-level visits from U.S. officials like Bolton and Pompeo arranged to demonstrate the administration’s presumptive ability to stand up to Russia and counter its influence in the region without having to directly do so. Pompeo underlined in his February 2020 visit that “the United States wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country,” a thinly veiled reference to Minsk’s economic dependence on Moscow. Only much farther down the pecking order — after security, economic and energy issues — did Pompeo mention the crackdown on dissent and human rights violations in the country.

Three months later, a popular YouTuber and political activist Sergei Tikhanovski began his election campaign. He was arrested two days after announcing his candidacy, and his wife, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, has led the opposition ever since. She likely won the August 2020 election; independent election observers who analyzed over half a million ballots found that the government’s claim that Lukashenko received over 80 percent of the vote was statistically impossible. Minsk did not stop at manipulating the election; it attempted to put down the ensuing protests in the most brutal fashion imaginable. With strong backing from Moscow, thousands were arrested, beaten and tortured. Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee the country. Lukashenko cracked down on independent media, forcing some journalists into self-imposed exile and imprisoning the rest. Fantasies of a sovereign, Lukashenko-led Belarus with a stable relationship with the United States evaporated.

That serious situation worsened this week when Lukashenko directed the state-sponsored hijacking of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, to arrest and imprison a journalist and activist. Roman Protasevich had served as the editor in chief of NEXTA, a popular Telegram channel that served as a real-time conduit of information throughout the 2020 protests. The Belarusian KGB named him a “terrorist” and accused him of inciting “mass unrest” for his work. He now could face the death penalty.

The hijacking of the Ryanair flight and Protasevich’s arrest, along with the past nine months of repression in Belarus, are evidence of misguided interpretations of Minsk’s democratic “progress” in the past decade. Rather than openly condemning Belarus’s escalating authoritarian actions and maintaining pressure on Minsk to prevent further democratic backsliding, the West’s coddling of Lukashenko in an attempt to woo him away from Moscow created the circumstances for the dangerous precedent of state-sponsored hijacking. It’s a precedent that other authoritarian states will seek to emulate, and one the United States and its allies should not soon forget.