Belarusians are on a quest for democracy. Yet even as they struggle against the oppressive regime that has held them down for more than a quarter of a century, the United States seems to be losing interest in what is happening there. It is important more than ever before that Washington remain engaged.
For the last 26 years, Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist. He and his regime have severely suppressed civil rights and democratic freedoms. Citizens traditionally do not have the freedom to protest, even peacefully. Press freedoms are extremely restricted and subject to the whims of the regime. When opposition against the government grows, independent media outlets often lose their status as registered media.
But since July, Belarusians have taken to the streets to try to change that oppressive political environment. It began when mass rallies in support of opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya started to grow. Then, directly following the rigged August 9 presidential election, mass protests broke out.
Those protests have continued for more than 50 days now—an amazing phenomenon for a country still struggling to escape its Soviet past. The protesters are motivated by their conviction that the election was fraudulent, and neither free nor fair.
The regime does not gladly suffer opposition, let alone protests. On August 11, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania for safety reasons. Almost two months later, it still is not safe for her to return to Belarus. On Oct. 7, she was added to a wanted list in Belarus as well as Russia. According to the Belarusian government, she has incited “actions that threaten national security.”
Meanwhile, Belarusian police have beaten, harassed, and imprisoned protestors. Already, more than 12,000 Belarusians have been detained.
But the citizens of Belarus persevere, despite the danger they face in going out to protest. Tens of thousands attend protests weekly. They remain bold and hopeful for democracy in the face of repression.
Soon after the election, the United States showed some interest in the situation in Belarus. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun visited Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius in late August, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has issued a few statements in support of the democracy movement and regretting the regime’s repression of fundamental rights.
But in more recent weeks, with the U.S. presidential election and the Senate hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett nearing, America has lost focus in regard to Belarus.
However, it remains extremely important that the U.S. not abandon its support for the Belarusians.
In the United States, it is easy to take democracy for granted. America’s democratic system has existed since the country’s inception.
But for Belarus, less than three decades removed from Soviet rule, democracy is essentially a new concept. Belarusians deserve an opportunity to experience democracy for themselves, and there is a better chance of this happening with the United States’ backing.
One way the United States can support Belarusians in the long-term is by continuing the nomination process for Julie Fisher, nominee to be the ambassador to Belarus. After an 11-year hiatus in diplomatic relations, Minsk and Washington finally announced plans last fall to exchange ambassadors again. In the midst of the current political unrest in Belarus, it would not be wise to reinstate the U.S. ambassador in Minsk, but Fisher could temporarily remain in Vilnius until the situation resolves. In the long-term, normalized bilateral relations with Belarus will be profitable.
Another beneficial action the United States could take is continuing to work with European partners regarding the changing political environment in Belarus. Last week, the U.S. and European Union imposed coordinated sanctions on Belarusian officials. These come in addition to the travel ban that the United States placed on Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials earlier this year. Depending on what unfolds in Belarus in the coming weeks, an ever-strong partnership and relationship with the European Union will remain important, especially because many E.U. countries intrinsically know the larger context of the Belarusian protests. They will thus know better how to proceed.
The United States should not give up on Belarus. It is not a “lost cause.” The continuing protests against the Lukashenko regime make that quite clear.
Despite political distractions at home, the United States should remember the Belarusians and their pursuit of democracy, and do whatever possible to advance it. Belarusians deserve to experience freedom, just as Americans have every day of their lives.
This piece originally appeared in RealClearWorld