US push to counter Russia may be in jeopardy amid Belarus unrest

US push to counter Russia may be in jeopardy amid Belarus unrest
President Lukashenko is facing mounting pressure after a controversial election. Source: AP
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Daily US Times: As Belarus is roiled by a government crackdown on peaceful anti-government demonstrators protesting a controversial election which was condemned by the international community, a casualty of the unrest may be a nascent diplomatic push by the Trump administration to improve relations 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 Belarus, the former Soviet republic, in part as an effort to prevent the country from falling completely into Moscow’s orbit.

However, with the US joining European friends in disputing the result of the presidential election and continuing crackdowns and protests by the regime of “Europe’s last dictator” — Alexander Lukashenko — experts told US tv network CNN the path of diplomatic rapprochement with Minsk is unclear.

Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader, claimed she would won the election if it was not rigged. Source: Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on Monday expressing concern about the election, saying it “was not free and fair.”

Pompeo added in the statement: “We urge the Belarusian government to respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from the use of force, and release those wrongfully detained. We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters.”

In Wednesday while speaking in a press conference in Prague, Mr Pompeo 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.”

As Belarusians protest, Chinese president Xi and Russian president Putin rally behind Lukashenko. Source: Getty Images

According to the US State Department, 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”.

When Pompeo visited Minsk in February, he became the highest level official to visit the country in years. He voiced optimism that the day of meetings with Lukashenko and other officials would serve “a solid first step towards improved relationships and closer ties.”

Mr Pompeo also noted that “further progress in those areas (of democracy and civil rights) and others is the only path towards lifting US sanctions.”

In April this year, 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 United States Ambassador in Belarus since 2008, when the Belarusian government expelled the ambassador and 30 out of 35 US diplomats.

A Protester embrace a Belarus law enforcement officer during a rally against President Alexander Lukashenko. Source: Getty Images

Fisher told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing last week: “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.”

On Tuesday, Senator Chris Murphy called for Fisher’s nomination to be “set aside.”

The Connecticut Democrat tweeted: “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.”

Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, concurred.

She said: “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.”

Alexander Lukashenko has been accused of rigging the election. Source: TASS

The Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Melinda Haring, argued that the unrest in Belarus underscores the need for the US to have an envoy on the ground.

The US need an ambassador in Minsk and it needed an ambassador in Minsk for a long time, Haring told, adding ”And the person who’s been nominated, Julie Fisher, is phenomenal.”

”And we need her there now to help negotiate,” Haring said.

“The US can’t be a player if we don’t have anyone on the ground in Minsk.”

The administration announced a major shipment of US oil to Belarus in May, something it touted at the time as strengthening “Belarusian sovereignty and independence.”

US ‘strategy is now collapsed’

Conley noted that “most” strategies of the US on rapprochement with the European country “was always trying to create energy diversity for Belarus, to try to wean it off of Russian energy dependence,” but events and developments over the past few days “suggest that strategy is now collapsed and we’re going to have to create a different approach here.”

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