Who Is Elected U.S. President Will Make a Stark Difference for a Belarus in Crisis
Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election
The U.S. presidential election coincides with the post-election crisis in Belarus, and which leader is chosen by American voters will certainly have an impact on the country. While the Trump administration has kept its distance from the unfolding struggle of Belarusians for democratic change, Joe Biden has expressed explicit support for them and a commitment to work with European allies to facilitate a solution to the crisis.
For years, the relationship between Minsk and Washington was defined mostly by Belarusian politics, with the United States—alongside the EU—having imposed sanctions on the autocratic regime of President Aliaksandr Lukashenko for human-rights violations. With Belarus deeply integrated in Russia-led regional structures and the regime not interested in eventual EU or NATO membership, Minsk also kept relations rather distant.
The United States paid occasional interest to Belarus, particularly in response to Russia’s assertiveness in the region. The country was important to the extent it remained a sovereign state between NATO and Russia. Thus, following the Kremlin’s attempts to force the Russo-Belarusian integration project that could allow Vladimir Putin to become the head of the Union State, and as the dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was putting at risk security in the region, in recent months senior U.S. officials—including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—visited Minsk for the first time in years. They reaffirmed that the United States supports Belarus’ sovereignty, and that in a time of geopolitical tensions between the major powers the two countries should seek intersecting interests.
Relations have seen some normalization during Trump’s presidency. However, this can be attributed not so much to initiative from the U.S. side, but to Belarusian efforts to promote the image of Lukashenka as a leader that Washington can deal with, lifting the sanctions, and better economic cooperation.
Normalization is now on hold given the ongoing post-election crackdown on protesters against Lukashenka’s rule, which have seen more than 10,000 people detained and at least four protest-related deaths. The crisis also puts in question the arrival of the newly nominated U.S. ambassador, Julie Fisher, particularly after the State Department announced new sanctions against several individuals complicit in the repression of protests.
Yet, the U.S. reaction has been restrained. President Trump has been silent on the situation in Belarus, and the rhetoric from Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun was very cautious when he stated that Belarusians needed to decide their fate for themselves, implying that the United States would not involve itself in finding a solution to the crisis. This could also be read as reluctance to engage in a region that falls in the Russian sphere of interest, including unwillingness to coordinate a joint response with the EU on possible OSCE mediation mechanisms and seeking a political solution.
Although the Trump administration has taken little interest in the situation, a Belarus Democracy, Human rights, and Sovereignty Act has been introduced in Congress, in no small measure thanks to a Belarusian diaspora that actively engages with legislators. The bill has bipartisan support and calls for comprehensive support for the Belarusian people and civil society, and the refusal to recognize potential Russian attempts to incorporate Belarus.
Biden harshly criticized Trump and his administration for lack of clear support for the peaceful protesters in Belarus, and stated his backing for the democratic leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. He has promised that as president he would coordinate economic support for a sovereign democratic Belarus and call for a peaceful transfer of power to the democratic forces.
For Belarus, a Biden presidency would bring more support in the spirit of upholding the ideals of the liberal international order. Yet, Biden’s foreign policy priorities are not yet set in stone, and there is room for a debate within the Democratic Party between those in favor of Obama-style non-engagement in democracy promotion, along with a focus on the Asia-Pacific, and those who stand for the United States’ role as the global democratic leader and for transatlantic unity.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, there will still be the eternal dispute between the realists who pragmatically narrow down U.S. interests and those who stand for more idealistic liberal values. For Belarus, this translates into whether it will be treated by Washington as a smaller actor in a Russian sphere of interest or as a valuable stakeholder in the international order.
This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.