As Belarus is roiled by a government crackdown on peaceful demonstrators protesting an election condemned by the international community, a casualty of the unrest may be a nascent diplomatic push by the Trump administration to improve ties with Minsk as part of an effort to counter Russia’s one-time dominant position there.
The Trump administration had made a major effort to normalized relations with the former Soviet republic, in part as an effort to prevent Belarus from falling completely into Moscow’s orbit.
However, with the US joining European allies in disputing the outcome of the Belarusian presidential election and continuing protests and crackdowns by the regime of “Europe’s last dictator” – Alexander Lukashenko – experts told CNN the path of diplomatic rapprochement with Minsk is unclear.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement expressing concern about the election, saying it “was not free and fair.”
“We urge the Belarusian government to respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from use of force, and release those wrongfully detained. We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters,” Pompeo added.
In a press conference in Prague Wednesday, the top US diplomat reiterated concerns about the election, adding, “We want the people of Belarus to have the freedoms that they’re demanding, that they think are in their best interests.”
Lukashenko, who has ruled for 26 years, has been under US sanction since 2006 after a presidential election “that violated international norms and was neither free nor fair,” according to the US State Department.
In February, Pompeo became the highest level official to visit Minsk in years. He voiced optimism that the day of meetings with officials, including Lukashenko, would serve “a solid first step towards improved relationships and closer ties.”
He also noted that “further progress in those areas (of democracy and civil rights) and others is the only path towards lifting US sanctions.”
US named first ambassador to Minsk since 2008
In April, the White House announced its nominee for US Ambassador to Belarus: Julie Fisher, a career foreign service officer. If confirmed, she would be the first US Ambassador in Minsk since 2008, when the Belarusian government expelled the ambassador and 30 out of 35 US diplomats.
“The first component to ensuring that we can continue to grow this relationship” is that it “does not see steps backward in the conduct of the presidential election,” Fisher told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing last week.
On Tuesday, Sen. Chris Murphy called for Fisher’s nomination to be “set aside.”
“Trump wants to restore diplomatic relations with Belarus. The Ambassador nominee is pending in the Senate. Right now, this would be a huge mistake. It would look like an endorsement of Lukashenko’s crackdown,” the Connecticut Democrat wrote on Twitter.
Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, concurred.
“I think it would be wise right now just to put that on hold for a moment, but meanwhile we better be reopening the diplomatic channels with Berlin, with Brussels, with our key European partners because we need a unified policy approach to Belarus; that’s the only way this is going to work,” she said.
Melinda Haring, the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, argued that the unrest in Belarus underscores the need for the US to have an envoy on the ground.
“We need an ambassador in Minsk. We’ve needed an ambassador in Minsk for a long time. And the person who’s been nominated, Julie Fisher, is phenomenal. And we need her there now to help negotiate,” Haring told CNN. “The United States can’t be a player if we don’t have anyone on the ground in Minsk.”
In May, the administration announced a major shipment of US oil to Belarus, something it touted at the time as strengthening “Belarusian sovereignty and independence.”
US ‘strategy is now collapsed’
Conley noted that “most” of US strategy on rapprochement with Belarus “was always trying to create energy diversity for Belarus, to try to wean it off of Russian energy dependence,” but events over the past several days “suggest that strategy is now collapsed and we’re going to have to create a different approach here.”
“It’s unclear how and if the Trump administration will recalibrate its policy, whether that policy will be in sync with the European Union,” she said.
Minsk has enjoyed close relations with Moscow, and is technically part of a loose binational confederation with Russia. US and NATO military planners have long expressed concern about Russian influence and presence in Belarus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to release a statement on Sunday’s vote, saying it “undoubtedly meets the fundamental interests of the fraternal peoples of Russia and Belarus,” and promised “mutually beneficial Russian-Belarusian relations in all areas.”
The Belarusian leader has earned a reputation of seeking to maintain his country’s independence by playing the West and Moscow off of one another. But with Lukashenko’s political future in doubt, experts told CNN they believe the Kremlin will ratchet up the pressure.
“I think Lukenshenko is in a bind,” said Haring. “Lukashenka had to massively cheat, and he just received a message from the Kremlin ad it was more of a to do list than it was a congratulatory call. Putin is saying, you know, you won, but here’s the things that we want from you.”
“It really seems that Putin has had it with Lukashenko,” said Anders Åslund, a resident senior fellow in the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council.