Since the patently unfair and undemocratic presidential election on Dec. 19, Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, has reminded his countrymen and the world that the post-Cold War vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace remains sadly unfulfilled. For more than a month, Lukashenko’s agents have fanned out to beat, arrest or intimidate opponents of his government in an effort to suppress any spark of disobedience.
Belarus is a country that understands suffering: The Holocaust consumed its thriving Jewish community; it was the site of some of the most savage fighting of World War II; it endured decades of authoritarian Soviet rule; and in 1986 it received 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown. Meanwhile, in the 20 years of independence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarusans have watched as their formerly socialist neighbors Poland and Lithuania radically improved their standards of living, freely elected their governments, and became dynamic members of the European Union and NATO.
Since Lukashenko came to power in 1994, he has maintained his grip by neutralizing and intimidating his critics. He and his cronies control the television stations, and they have used a 2008 media law to close the independent press, effectively stifling political debate. There is no freedom of assembly in Belarus.
Even by Lukashenko’s standards, however, the crackdown since the December voting is notable for its repression: More than 600 people were swept up by Belarusan security forces on Election Day and its aftermath, among them journalists, civil society representatives, political activists and at least six of nine opposition presidential candidates – four of whom remain in jail. The detained continue to be denied access to family, lawyers, medical treatment and open legal proceedings, while their relatives and attorneys endure harassment by Lukashenko’s security forces.
European and American officials have attempted to engage the Belarusan government since 2008 in hopes of encouraging Lukashenko to improve his government’s practices and prevent the further isolation and oppression of his people. We believe in the utility of diplomatic engagement, but when one side turns its back on progress, it demands a reaction. Developments since last month’s election indicate the present limits of engagement with Lukashenko and point up the need for a new approach.
Geography gives the European Union greater economic and political influence in Belarus than the United States has. For this reason, we are encouraged by the commendable job Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has done coordinating with her E.U. counterpart, High Representative Catherine Ashton. In our response to the crackdown in Belarus, the transatlantic world should speak with one voice.
The situation in Belarus demands a strong and uncompromising response from all parties. The political prisoners detained by Belarusan authorities, including the four presidential candidates, should be released immediately and their safety assured. Until there is clear evidence of this and an unambiguous demonstration that the Belarusan government is taking seriously the basic human rights of its citizens, we suggest that these five steps be implemented:
First, our own government and the European Union should impose targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against Belarusan officials and their associates responsible for the crackdown and human rights abuses.
Second, we urge the European Union to join the United States in prohibiting business with, and freezing the assets of, the Belarusan state-owned oil and petrochemicals company, Belneftekhim, as well as other entities that enrich Lukashenko and his cronies at the expense of the Belarusan people.
Third, we ask that the European Union cut projects linked to Belarusan authorities and suspend meetings with Belarusan officials under its Eastern Partnership policy. We urge our European partners to instead join the United States in efforts to increase engagement with the Belarusan people and provide increased, effective support for Belarusan civil society.
Fourth, we urge Clinton and Ashton to continue to closely coordinate U.S. and E.U. policies toward Belarus.
Fifth, we call on other members of the international community, including Russia, to take similar targeted actions against the Belarusan leadership.
Belarus can and should be a prosperous and free country like its neighbors. In their hour of need, the Belarusan people must know that the United States and Europe stand united on their side, while Lukashenko and his government must be made to pay real and serious costs for their authoritarianism and repression. When E.U. foreign ministers meet Monday to discuss Belarus, we hope they know the time has arrived for strong, principled transatlantic action.
By John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.