Former US Assistant Secretary of State: Belarusians are brave

25 December 2020, 15:59 | Aliaxei Znatkevich, Radio Svaboda
David Kramer.
Source: Radio Svaboda

David Kramer, a researcher at the International University of Florida and a former Assistant Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, was interviewed by Radio Svaboda.

He explained how the “The Belarus Democracy, Human Rights and Sovereignty Act of 2020” should work, what the United States should warn Moscow about and how it can be possible to encourage Belarusian security forces not to obey criminal orders. 

Source: Svaboda Premium

On 21 December the US Senate approved the “The Belarus Democracy, Human Rights and Sovereignty Act of 2020.” This bill expands the US president’s authority to impose sanctions on the regime in Belarus. And they cite as reasons the electoral fraud in August and the subsequent governmental crackdown on protesters and the civil society in general. To become law, it is yet to be signed by the President of the United States. Do you expect President Trump to sign it pretty quick? Or will it be left to the new administration of Joe Biden?

I certainly hope Donald Trump will sign it. Although there has been a new wrinkle in that when the President announced that he planned to veto the overall bill. And the Belarus Democracy Act is a part of that larger bill. I think it would be incredibly unfortunate not only for the people of Belarus, because I think that this Act is extremely important in support of the people of Belarus. But it would also be bad for the American people too, because it includes legislation assistance for Americans in this terrible pandemic.

If President Trump vetoes it, the Congress could very well override that veto, but that likely would not happen until early next year. And so the delay would be extraordinarily unfortunate for many many people, including the US military, including the American people, and including the people of Belarus. So I certainly hope that it will be signed by the President and he is just bluffing with this threat to veto.

Similar bills were signed in 2004, 2006, and 2011. They were initiated, the same way as this bill, by Congressman Christopher Smith. Do you think these documents had a positive impact on the situation in Belarus in general?

Absolutely. And I think that Congressman Smith deserves a great deal of credit for his consistent and steady support for the people of Belarus through this legislation. It does not only aim to target those who commit electoral fraud, human rights’ abuses, but it also provides the necessary critical support to civil society, and activists and others who are trying to counter the regime as well as outside influence.

That is an extremely important legislation. And that is why not only the people in Belarus but also those who were forced to flee have been so supportive of it and eager to see it passed by the Congress and, hopefully, to be signed by the President.

How would you compare this “Belarus Democracy, Human Rights and Sovereignty Act of 2020” with the previous such Acts? Is it different in any important way?

It is different, in the sense, that it reflects, in my opinion, what I think has been the worst election in Belarus. Belarus has had a series of terrible elections. But this one was the worst. According to many indications Lukashenko actually lost the vote, and quite likely Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the legitimate winner in the election. And then I think we have seen the worst violence in Belarus’ history since its independence in 1991. There have been a number of instances of violence in the past, including the disappearances of several individuals in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But this violence has been unprecedented by Belarus standards.

And that underscores that the only way Lukashenko can stay in power is through brutal force. And so I hope that the security forces will realize that they are supporting an illegitimate leader who is losing increasing support.

In terms of the differences, there is a little more focus on Russian support, there is more emphasis on the Belarusian-Russian union and any efforts by Russian actors who might facilitate the crackdown or the fraud or even who participate in the state propaganda. As a number of journalists and TV presenters on Belarus TV decided to resign, we saw a number of employees of RT [Russia Today] step in and do the dirty work of propaganda for Lukashenko.

And there is a little more difference. There is assistance designed specifically to try counter disinformation and surveillance technology which is something fairly new from previous versions. There is also an emphasis on supporting the work of women who have been advocating on behalf of democracy and human rights for Belarus, because we really have seen women step up and take the leading role in this latest series of push back against the Lukashenko regime.

Do you see any important mistakes in how the previous Acts were implemented by the previous US administrations?

Well I speak with certain experience on this because when the previous 2004, 2006 versions of the Act were adopted, 2006 in particular, I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. And I had the responsibility for matters related to Belarus. I have personally played a role in imposing sanctions, working closely with a number of colleagues in the State Department as well as in the Treasury Department. And that cooperation between the State Department and the Treasury was very important.

It is also important to underscore that we have worked very closely with our European allies. The European Union and the United States have been closely in sink in the imposing of sanctions.

I think a lot of it has to do with the leadership from the top. At the time, we had the support of President George W. Bush and the support of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to take a tough line on the Lukashenko regime. And the “Belarus Democracy Act” was very supportive of our efforts. These days, I think, we see tremendous work done by George Kent, who now has my old position in the Deputy Assistant Secretary Role, and the Deputy Secretary of State, Steve Biegun. Both of them visited the region, went to Vilnius, met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and also visited Moscow after that. I really salute their efforts. Unfortunately, neither Secretary of State Pompeo showed much interest in matters involving Belarus, nor did President Trump say anything at all.

So I think we are dealing with a different political situation within the United States in terms of high-level support for what should be done. But that is why the “Act on Democracy in Belarus” passed by the Congress is so important, because it reflects bipartisan support, which is rare these days, as you know, in US, for the people of Belarus and opposing what the Lukashenko regime is doing.

Do you expect the new Joe Biden administration to actively use the tools that are given to it by the Act?

Yes, I do. When Joe Biden was a candidate and then became the president-elect, he has made it clear that democracy and human rights would be a key part of his foreign policy. He is planning a summit for democracy, probably, next year, or perhaps in 2022, depending on the situation with the coronavirus pandemic. And he also knows this region very well and cares about the region. As a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a former vice president he has great experience in this part of the world.

And his initial choices of people for key foreign policy positions, including Tony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan as national security advisers, indicate that he will place high priority on democracy and human rights and little patience and tolerance for authoritarian regimes, such as the brutal one we see in Minsk. So I do have hope and optimism for the change in the administration. Again, I don’t want to downplay the efforts of George Kent and Steve Biegun who I salute for their hard work. But they need the top-level support, and I think the Biden administration will bring that.

The Act mentions the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin in propping up the Lukashenko regime. Do you expect that Belarus will be relatively high on the agenda when the new US administration communicates with the Russian Government?

Yes, I do. It is because the situation remains fluent thanks to the enormous effort of the people of Belarus, who continue to go out on the streets with huge risks of being beaten, arrested, tortured and even, sadly, in a few cases murdered. I think that the people of Belarus are keeping this issue on the radar screen. And this is an issue that we need to be warning Moscow that any intervention will be met with very serious repercussions. We need to make it clear that it is up to the people of Belarus to decide who their leaders are going to be, and that Russian support of propping up Lukashenko will also be met with consequences, as demonstrated through this Belarus Act of Sovereignty.

I believe that this should be on the agenda. But it should also be very clear that there should not be any deals cut between Moscow and Washington on Belarus without involving Belarus. Belarus should have a say in any negotiations, in any discussions that are held between the United States and Russia or the Europeans and Russia. We cannot be moving the pieces on the chessboard and have Belarus sitting on the sidelines. I think this is an important issue for the new administration, but let’s also be realistic. The new administration will have to face a pandemic crisis, a very weak economy, and many challenges related to the polarization of American politics. So it may take a little while for this administration to focus on this issue. But that is why President Biden is appointing a strong team so that they can take responsibility while he may be preoccupied with some pressing and important issues.

You said that Belarus should have a role to play, to have a voice in any deal made between, for example, the United States and Russia. The Act mentions Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Coordination Council as a legitimate institution for dialogue on the peaceful transfer of power. If we are talking about the voice of Belarus, should it be the voice of the Coordination Council and Tsikhanouskaya?

In the transition period – yes, I think. She has indicated that she would only be a transitional figure, that she would call for new elections, that she would not stand herself in those elections. But I think that in the absence of any other point of leadership she is the base for that. I think that the Coordination Council should be more empowered by the West and I think she should be more empowered by the West.

I think she represents the democratic movement in Belarus. And her husband and other people were denied registration as candidates in the election. Some of them were thrown in jail. She had enough courage to step up. And as I have mentioned earlier she could possibly have won the election, based on some surveys that have been done.

So in the absence of anyone else she is the person to focus on during the transitional period until Lukashenko is gone and Belarus is able to hold the elections that comply with the OSCE standards and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Their standards are the “golden standards” for the region.

You have already mentioned that the new Belarus Act has the new word “Sovereignty” in its name for the first time. What tools does the United States have to deter Russia from, I quote, “threatening the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belarus”, as it is formulated in the Act?

I think that together the United States and the European Union can make it very clear that major sanctions will be imposed on Russia that would not only target individuals, but would target banks and other organizations. This could lead to expulsion from the Council of Europe, which may not be a huge penalty for Russia to pay because they suffered that after the invasion of Ukraine, but then was allowed back in over the objection of a number of members of the Council of Europe.

It could also lead to the movement of NATO forces to the border. I am, obviously, not calling for a military confrontation with Russia over Belarus. We are not going to send troops to Belarus.

Another thing that needs to be made clear to the Kremlin is that Belarus in the recent past has been either pro-Russian or neutral toward Russia. But if Putin wants to turn the people of Belarus against Russia he can send troops either to support Lukashenko or to prop someone else in his place.

This is not a competition between the West and Russia. It is about the people of Belarus having the right and the ability to choose their leaders freely and decide their own future. We also should not be taking the European Union off the table nor should we be pushing that. Nobody talks about Belarus joining the European Union or NATO. But at the same time, let’s not tie the hands of a future of Belarus cutting deals now. That is for Belarus to decide under a democratic system of power, and not for Moscow, or Washington, or Brussels, or anyone else to decide at the moment.

 The most pressing issue to decide right now is that the Lukashenko regime needs to go. It is violating on a massive level the human rights of his citizens through brutal crackdown, tortures, beatings, unwarranted arrests. As long as Lukashenko stays there, Belarus will not have a bright future. Without Lukashenko in power, Belarus, for the first time in 26 years, would have the possibility of a much better future, and, hopefully, a good relations with Russia. Belarus will always border Russia. I do not think that anyone wants Belarus or any other country that borders Russia to have hostile relations with it. But in order to have good relations, Russia must also respect Belarus sovereignty and territorial integrity.

If the new administration asks for your advice what specific sanctions against the regime in Belarus would you recommend?

It seems to me that there are a number of so-called “wallets”, people who fund the Lukashenko regime. These are both Belarusians and people from Russia. But there are also ties with the Gulf countries. I think we should also be engaging with the United Arab Emirates, as well as with other Gulf countries to make sure that there is no money from Belarus and the Lukashenko regime flow to the Gulf States for safe keeping.

Much tighter sanctions are needed against some of those enterprises. The problem, of course, is that we do not want to hurt the people of Belarus. We want to tighten the noose around the regime. That is why not only sanctions, I would argue, needs to be the approach. We also need to encourage and entice people on the security services to look in the mirror and decide whether they want to support this illegitimate brutal regime or they want to stand with their family, their friends, their neighbors, their fellow citizens, and do the right thing and not to engage in these brutal methods. And for those who do not make the right choice, there must be very clear sanctions.

The people who fund Lukashenko, whether they are in Belarus or Russia, should be targets of Western sanctions.

You have already said about not hurting the Belarusian people with sanctions. There are people who say that the most powerful tool against the regime would be to switch Belarus off from the SWIFT payment system. But others say that it would be a catastrophe for Belarus and would push it towards Russia and would destroy the Belarusian economy. What do you think of this step? And can it be a tool in negotiations with Russia, as a threat against Russia, if it decides to annex Belarus?

Several years ago, there was talk of disconnecting Russia from SWIFT, and the reaction in Moscow, including from then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, was that it would be the equivalent of using nuclear weapons against Russia in a financial sense. Expelling Belarus from SWIFT would also be a pretty drastic measure.

I am not saying that it should be taken off the table. I think every option should be on the table within reason. We will not send the military in.

The United States on its own is not able to expel Belarus from SWIFT. It would require other countries to agree to that. We do have to think about that. We have short-term demands of how to pressure the regime so Lukashenko goes and give the people of Belarus the first real opportunity for freedom. But we should keep in mind the question of how quickly we can undo it so the future government would not be burdened of having been expelled from the SWIFT banking system.

This also is true for sanctions against Belarusian entities as well. We need to be careful. We want to be targeted, we want to be swift, but we also want to be able to lift these sanctions we imposed if the change comes about, so that the transitional government and the following government do not have the burden of dealing with these kinds of sanctions. We have short-term needs, but we need to think about the medium and long term needs at the same time.

Still, I would like to clarify one thing. Can it be used in negotiations with Russia to prevent a theoretical but dangerous scenario, if there is a decision to annex Belarus? Can one of the options be the exclusion from the SWIFT system?

There is a part of me that does not like to telegraph what we might do. That part of me also wants to keep as many options on the table as possible. But there is the part of me that wants to be clear with Moscow what might happen if the situation either continues or gets worse, or if we see Russian intervention. There are more sanctions that we can impose short of expelling Belarus from SWIFT…

I mean the expulsion of Russia from SWIFT, if they decide to annex Belarus.

Oh, Russia’s expulsion from SWIFT. Sure. That was discussed after the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Ukrainian Donbass. If Russia repeated this with Belarus… Absolutely, that should be on the table. Honestly, if Russia would do that… It sort of boils down to the question of how many more countries Russia needs to invade before the West takes some really serious actions? I do not need to minimize the sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine. But we did nothing after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. I was in government at the time. And I think that, unfortunately, it played a role in Putin’s decision to go into Ukraine in 2014.

If we do not take some pretty drastic measures if Russia would do something like that in Belarus I do not know what it would take than for us to take that kind of measures of dealing with SWIFT. Frankly, I think Putin himself should go on a sanctions’ list if he would invade Belarus. One country is too much. And the three countries is really over the top. It demands the strongest response possible. Otherwise, there will be no stopping Putin. He will think that he will keep getting away with invading his neighbors, interfering with their domestic affairs, and deciding their future for them rather than the people of these countries decide their own future.

You co-authored the recent article in the magazine Foreign Policy where you talk about the outflow from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other law enforcement agencies in Belarus. I will quote from the article: “encouraging the defection from Lukashenko’s security forces offers the best chance for real change in Belarus”. But with such repressive regime the cost of such defections are very high. What ways to encourage such defections do you see? 

It’s tricky. We do want people in the security services to see that they support an illegitimate leader. We also realize that Lukashenko, with his limited resources, is making sure that the security services are well taken care of, that they are payed and receive whatever compensation is necessary in order to keep them on his side.

But I do think that there could be some financial assistance offered to those who decide they’ve had enough. They may have to flee the country, either on their own or with their families. In which case they will need some relocation assistance.

There have been efforts to compile documentation and evidence of abuses that take place so there could be targeted sanctions against individuals who engage in these kinds of human rights abuses. So this combination of measures to show that there will be a cost to be paid if they engage in human rights abuses, but there is also support and help if you do the right thing.

It may continue this slow but steady erosion from the security services where we see the people from the prosecutor’s office and other law enforcement agencies deciding that this is not what they signed up for. They are being asked to beat up their fellow citizens, possibly their friends and neighbors, or, may be, even family members. I hope that their conscience will wake them up to realize that doing so in the name of a failing, extremely unpopular, illegitimate leader is not what they signed up for.

And they could have a much brighter future if they did the right thing, resigned from their positions, disobeyed illegal and illegitimate orders, and see that they have the support of the West and from the Belarusian diaspora as well. I think we can work together to encourage that kind of development.

And my last question. What would you say to those people in Belarus who are still risking their health, jobs and sometimes life continuing the protests in very creative ways?

I think they are heroes. And I think they are an inspiration. At the time now that democracy around the world has been under attack, both internally and externally. We see, particularly, the authoritarian states of Russia and China, trying to push back against the democratic movements. But at the same time we do see positive developments in various parts of the world. People in Hong Kong deserve enormous credit for what they are trying to do against tremendously adverse circumstances. And it does not look great right now in Hong Kong, but I think that this freedom movement there will prevail. In Sudan, we saw a long time dictator removed from power. The same in Algeria. And then we see Belarus.

The people of Belarus should understand that Europe will not be whole, free, and at peace as long as Belarus is left out of the puzzle. And I think that the people of Belarus deserve enormous credit for what they are doing. They are true heroes, their courage is amazing. That is why the “The Belarus Democracy, Human Rights and Sovereignty Act” is so important. Because it shows that despite all the problems and preoccupations we have in the United States, the US Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, were able to pass this act as part of a larger piece of legislation to demonstrate US support support for the people of Belarus and their opposition to the dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

I hope they understand that there is a lot of support for what they are doing. And they are a source of inspiration in this difficult time around the world when people are dealing with a pandemic. Belarusians are also dealing with a pandemic. Their leader has badly misled them about the pandemic and has blood on his hands for that. But the people of Belarus have decided that enough is enough. 26 years of this guy is more than enough. Belarusians want to live in a free society, they want their sovereignty and they want their territorial integrity respected. They want to be a normal European country. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that.