The United States should lift up Belarusian civil society, according to experts, and slap tougher sanctions on mid-level government officials abusing protestors.
The Trump administration should widen sanctions against human-rights abusers in Belarus and ramp up support for civil-society groups monitoring president Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdown, according to former State and Treasury department officials.
Lukashenko purged his political opponents from the ballot in mid-August and unleashed security forces against civilians protesting the election. The crackdown has not cowed Lukashenko’s opponents, who have called for his ouster every weekend for the past two months. Over 100,000 people protested in Minsk on Sunday.
The United States penalized senior members of Lukashenko’s inner-circle last week in an effort to push the embattled leader to negotiate. The State Department announced in September that the United States no longer recognizes Lukashenko’s government, and coordinated the sanctions with wider penalties from Europe.
Both the Trump administration and European Union officials could be doing more to support the protestors, experts told National Journal.
“I think both the U.S. and the EU need to go much further than they have so far, in terms of the number of people that they sanction,” said Michael Carpenter, director at the Penn Biden Center, who called for sanctions against “mid-level” Belarusian officials directly responsible for the human-rights abuses.
Belarus-specific sanctions date to the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, and a Bush-era executive order that sets out guidelines for penalizing officials responsible for undermining democracy. Lawmakers added further penalties in 2011.
The Trump administration targeted eight people Friday, including the head of Belarus’s elections and the chief of Belarus’s security forces, and the European Union sanctioned 40 people. The United Kingdom and Canada also announced sanctions over the weekend, including against Lukashenko himself.
The sanctions are only one part of Belarus policy, experts stressed, which is ultimately supposed to push Lukashenko to negotiate. Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mediate the negotiations on Tuesday.
Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, predicted that Merkel would take up the challenge—but would have to act quickly. Russian President Vladimir Putin might accuse the EU of meddling in Belarus’ government should the talks drag, Dempsey told National Journal.
“If Merkel does take on this mediating role, it’s got to be incredibly sophisticated and it’s got to be very fast,” said Dempsey.
The United States may not play a direct role in mediating the talks, but the Trump administration might put more pressure on Lukashenko by targeting mid-level officials inside his government. Former State Department sanctions coordinator Daniel Fried told National Journal that the State Department and OFAC could craft an executive order to authorize “status-based” penalties: those which authorize Treasury to target specific people based on their employment. Officials could then work with Belarusian civil society to identify targets, like “the plainclothes cops roughing up dissidents.”
“Putting this into legislation is hard as hell, and then it’s not as flexible,” said Fried. “It’s far better to let OFAC do it, in coordination with the State Department.”
Lawmakers have remained largely hands-off on Belarus, besides offering statements in support of those protesting against Lukashenko. In July, the Senate passed a resolution condemning the arrest of opposition candidates and political protesters. The chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee separately called out Lukashenko’s handling of the election in early August, and later in the month issued a joint statement calling for sanctions against those responsible for human-rights abuses.
The upper chamber might support Belarus policy by advancing Trump’s ambassadorial nominee to Belarus, several former officials and experts told National Journal. The United States and Belarus haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2008.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced career State Department official Julie Fisher favorably out of committee in late September. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy voted against the nomination, and argued that sending the ambassador to Belarus during the crackdown would reward Lukashenko. Some experts disagreed, and said having an ambassador in Minsk could help the United States coordinate policy with civil-society groups and would send an important signal to domestic opposition.
Sen. James Risch told Murphy that the State Department believed having an ambassador to Minsk was “the best way to help the Belarusian people.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office did not respond to emailed questions about Fisher’s nomination; Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesperson Suzanne Wrasse told National Journal that McConnell has “a number of priorities,” and that ambassadorial nominations were “on the list.”
While former officials agreed that ramping up support for civil society groups and sanctioning mid-level Belarusian officials could be effective at prodding Lukashenko to negotiate, they disagreed over whether also to target large state-owned firms that form the backbone of the Belarusian economy. Carpenter, Fried, and other former Obama administration officials suggested that penalizing the companies could end up hurting protestors, many of whom work on the factory floors.
The Lukashenko government has close ties with heavy industry, however, and a few lawmakers told National Journal they support lifting waivers granting them access to the U.S. market.
Rep. Alcee Hastings asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in mid-August to cancel sanctions waivers for several Belarusian companies. Hastings led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe election-monitoring mission for Belarus’s 2006 presidential election, and now heads the Helsinki Commission, a congressionally-created agency that coordinates OSCE policy on Capitol Hill. The Treasury Department has not responded to Hastings’ letter.
“Providing support to the Lukashenko regime by allowing its state-owned companies access to our financial system is unacceptable, and the sanctions announced on individuals last week by the Treasury Department are a step in the right direction,” said Hastings in a statement to National Journal. “However, Lukashenko himself has long been a prime candidate for Global Magnitsky sanctions, and failing to include him among the sanctioned individuals is a severe oversight.”
Last fall, the state-owned Belarusian oil company Belneftekhim retained lobbyist David Gencarelli to push for the continuation of a licensing exemption allowing the company to purchase “crude oil with delivery to the refineries in the Republic of Belarus.” The Treasury Department extended relief to Belneftekhim and other heavy-industry players, giving them continued access to the American market until April 2021.
“What we’ve seen over the years with Lukashenko is he’s a very skillful player juggling between the U.S. and Europe, which is a natural market for Belarus, and Russia,” said Sofya Orlosky, senior program manager for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House.
The EU has similarly sought to keep Lukashenko from sliding into Putin’s orbit, periodically lifting and reimposing sanctions on his government for human-rights abuses. The bloc suspended financial penalties in 2016 after Lukashenko granted “amnesty” to a number of political prisoners, which Orlosky said normalized Lukashenko’s undemocratic behavior.
“There’s been, as it were, a limit to the severity of sanctions in the past, because the argument was made at least implicitly that we don’t want to alienate Belarus too much or throw them into Russia’s arms,” said Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus.
The Trump administration has pursued normalization with Minsk for the past several years, prior to Lukashenko’s crackdown. The State Department’s top political official, David Hale, met with Lukashenko in Minsk in September 2019, and stated afterward that the U.S. was ready to exchange ambassadors “as the next step in normalizing our relationship.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Minsk in February for the same purpose.
The difference now, according to Gould-Davies: The legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime “is basically broken.” Very few people support the government, aside from people working directly for the state, which undercuts calls for moderation in the West.
“He enjoys no significant support outside of those who actually work for the state,” said Gould-Davies.