Report

The U.S. Was Set to Send an Ambassador to Belarus. Then Came the Crackdown.

Lawmakers threaten to block the confirmation of the first U.S. envoy to Belarus in over a decade. But others say an ambassador is needed now more than ever.

Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talk during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 1
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talk during a meeting in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 1 Nikolai Petrov/TASS/Getty Images

After more than a decade of diplomatic cold shoulder, the United States was poised to send a U.S. ambassador to Belarus. Now, though, amid Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s violent crackdown on protests following a rigged election, some Democratic lawmakers are getting cold feet, just as the ambassador goes through the Senate confirmation process, worried that sending an envoy could be seen as a reward to Lukashenko at the worst possible time.

Others on Capitol Hill, however, including both Republicans and Democrats, believe the United States needs to install a senior diplomat in Minsk to advance U.S. interests and help roll back Russian and Chinese influence in a country often called “Europe’s last dictatorship.” They also believe a U.S. ambassador could help empower Belarusian civil society hungry for democratic reforms to push back against the government’s crackdown on opposition leaders and dissidents. 

The debate on Capitol Hill drives at an existential question in the world of American diplomacy: Is it better to engage with authoritarian regimes in a bid to check rival powers’ influence, or does that risk undermining U.S. values in supporting democracy and human rights?

One leading lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, said he is prepared to block the confirmation to send a signal to Lukashenko in the midst of a crackdown that has seen some 6,000 people arrested and at least two people killed. The proposed envoy is Julie Fisher, a seasoned career diplomat with an extensive background in European affairs.

“Sending an ambassador to Minsk now, for the first time in over a decade, would signal that the United States condones these actions, and I am prepared to oppose the nomination in the Foreign Relations Committee unless it is withdrawn by the President,” said Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, another Democrat on the committee, expressed similar sentiments in a tweet on Tuesday, after a Belarus-born political consultant, Vitaly Shklyarov, was charged in Belarus last week for allegedly organizing an unsanctioned political rally; he could face up to three years’ imprisonment. 

Belarus, a highly authoritarian state, has been rocked by unprecedented protests since Sunday after highly dubious elections handed Lukashenko a sixth term. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the elections as “not free and fair.”

But other congressional aides and diplomats said sending a U.S. envoy to Belarus is critical to both pushing back against the Lukashenko regime’s abuses—and forestalling even more influence there from rivals like Russia and China. 

“Keeping [Belarus] out of the Chinese orbit and helping them pull away from Russia, that’s the bigger fight,” said one Republican congressional aide. “If you’re going to have this fight, you’re going to need to put a heavy hitter on the ground in Minsk.”

The feeling crosses the aisle.

“I don’t think that American Ambassadors should be considered rewards for good behavior—quite the opposite. We need strong ambassadors in countries with terrible human rights records to stand alongside opposition democratic actors and tell dictators what we think of them,” said a Democratic congressional aide. “Ambassadors are not rewards, tough U.S. diplomacy is not a reward,” the aide added. 

Several U.S. diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity echoed that sentiment, even as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considers Fisher’s nomination.

U.S. officials “don’t want to cede more space for Russia,” one diplomat said. “What do we gain by not sending her?”

Even without the potential block from Murphy, it could take months before Fisher arrives in Minsk, congressional aides said, given procedural hang-ups in Congress amid the pandemic lockdown that has pushed back routine business meetings and floor votes. 

Belarus has long been a close ally of Russia, but Moscow’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 prompted Lukashenko to rethink his dependence on Russia, and he began to make increasing overtures to both the West and China. 

In 2015, the United States gave Belarus some relief from sanctions after Lukashenko freed the country’s remaining political prisoners and held a peaceful, if not fair, presidential election. That paved the way for a thaw in relations, which picked up pace in January of last year, with Belarus ending a long-standing cap on the number of American diplomats allowed in the country. While the rapprochement was initially intended as a way to cajole Lukashenko to improve the country’s abysmal human rights record, human rights soon took a back seat to growing concerns about increasing Russian assertiveness in the region. 

Last year, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton visited the country, at the time the highest-level U.S. trip to Minsk in decades. “[D]espite Alexander
 Lukashenko’s
 less-than-stellar
 human-rights
 record,
 I
 wanted
 to prove
 the
 US would
 not
 simply
 watch
 Belarus
 be
 reabsorbed
 by
 Russia, which 
[Russian President Vladimir] Putin 
seemed 
to
 be 
seriously
 considering,” Bolton later wrote in his memoir.

But sending a U.S. envoy there now, some say, would amount to a pat on the back for doing very little.

“There haven’t been a lot of developments on the human rights front over the past three years, but the Belarusians have got almost everything they wanted,” said one former administration official who worked on European issues, adding that, in Minsk, the dispatch of a U.S. ambassador to Belarus for the first time in over a decade would be “explicitly” seen as a reward. 

“Perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s not a lot of fear in Minsk of what steps the EU and Russia will take,” the former official added.

The last U.S. ambassador to Belarus was expelled in 2008, when Washington imposed sanctions on Minsk over mounting human rights concerns. 

“If the U.S ambassador comes there now, it will be a blessing of the crimes that Lukashenko is perpetrating,” said Andrei Sannikov, who was the deputy foreign minister of Belarus before resigning in protest in 1996. 

Pompeo had a chance to take Lukashenko to task on Wednesday, when he gave a major speech on “Securing Freedom in the Heart of Europe” while on a visit to the Czech Republic. He didn’t mention Belarus once. But he sought to remedy that in an interview with Czech television later.

“We watched an election go on that was not free, that was not fair, and now we’ve seen them take actions against peaceful protesters that concern us all greatly,” he said. “I think Europe, I think the United States all need to figure out how to confront this in a way that delivers a good outcome for the people of Belarus.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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