With the flags of the European Union, Lithuania, Belarus and the United States as a backdrop, a group of diplomats and lawmakers on July 21 inaugurated the bipartisan Friends of Belarus Congressional Caucus. Their goal: to bring down Europe’s last dictatorship.
The symbolic event, billed as a press conference, took place at Lithuania’s embassy in Washington. It was highlighted by the presence of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the 38-year-old opposition leader and widely regarded winner of her country’s August 2020 presidential elections.
Audra Plepytė, Lithuania‘s ambassador to the United States, opened the event by insisting outright that Alexander Lukashenko—who‘s ruled Belarus since 1994—stole those elections.
“With unthinkable oppression, persecution and violence, his machine has tried to silence those who are clearly expressing their wish for change,” said Plepytė. “But even with more than 500 political prisoners and 10,000 detained, the regime could not and will not break the will and spirit of the Belarusian people.”
Plepytė called Tsikhanouskaya “the legitimate leader of Belarus” and expressed pride in the Lithuanian government for standing by freedom-loving Belarusians and giving the young politician asylum after she was forced to flee following those disputed elections.
“We admire your dedication, courage, and sense of responsibility,” she said. “When Belarusians and all people of goodwill from all over the world looks at you, they see hope. You give them strength to pursue and fight for a better future.”
Tsikhanouskaya, who met with Secretary of State Tony Blinken as well as various lawmakers and EU ambassadors in Washington, urged more sanctions against the Lukashenko government.
“I came to the United States with only one wish: that my beloved Belarus become free. And I’m sure it will happen. I want you to remember that when you look into my eyes, you are looking into the eyes of every political prisoner, every activist, volunteer, athlete or culture figure, who is brave enough to fight for democracy in Belarus.”
She added: “We understand that sanctions are not a silver bullet, but this will help us to release political prisoners.”
This isn’t the first time the Lithuanian Embassy has hosted a pro-democracy event on behalf of its oppressed neighbors in Belarus. On Feb, 6, officials there—along with those of the adjacent Polish Embassy on Sixteenth Street NW—jointly held an evening of solidarity to call attention to the cause of freedom in Belarus.
Both Belarus and Lithuania are former Soviet republics, but the neighboring countries took dramatically different paths after the USSR’s collapse in 1991. Lithuania, a modern democracy and member of the European Union, today scores 90 on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 index, while authoritarian Belarus earns a score of only 11.
The caucus, Plepytė said, shows that “the US will remain committed, active and engaged until the Lukashenko regimefinally falls and faces responsibility for its crimes and abuses.”
On May 23, Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair jet en route from Athens to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, to land in Minsk on the pretext that a bomb would detonate the aircraft if it didn’t. Once on the ground in Minsk, dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were taken off the plane and thrown in prison, where they remain.
The fake bomb threat, unprecedented in aviation history, sparked international outrage. The 27-member European Union, along with Britain and other Western nations, immediately banned Belarusian state carrier Belavia from their airports and ordered airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace. The Biden administration later announced a wave of sanctions against Minsk, including visa restrictions imposed by the State Department on 46 Belarusian officials.
Indeed, said Julie D. Fisher, the visiting US ambassador to Belarus, “from my perspective as a diplomat, I have seen no other issue unite Washington in such a way to bring together this level of support more so than the cause of freedom in Belarus. It is a tremendous day for our relationship with Belarus to be launching such a caucus.”
Co-chairs of the Friends of Belarus group are Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), Rep. Bill Keating (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey).
The formation of this caucus couldn’t be more timely. Over the past week, the Lukashenko regime has expanded its crackdown on independent media. The Belarusian Association of Journalists said authorities searched the apartments and offices of at least 21 reporters in Minsk, the capital, and in Brest, Gomel, Grodno and Pinsk. Among those targeted have been journalists who cooperated with the Belsat TV channel funded by Poland, and the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcaster.
Along with calling for new, free and fair elections in Belarus, the caucus also seeks to increase US funding for Belarusian civil society and tighten sanctions against the regime.
“We’re old enough to remember what it was like to live in a world with a Berlin Wall. And in 1989, the world shifted. And frankly, I wasn’t sure I would ever live to see that,” said Kaptur—the longest-serving woman in Congress—adding that Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy as president, and now relies on oppression to remain in power. “And now, we’re given the privilege in our lifetimes, helping to extend freedoms to places that have endured so much repression and harm.”
Smith, author of the original Belarus Democracy Act of 2004, said now is not the time to let up on Lukashenko.
“There can’t be any more democracy fatigue by the United States or by Europe,” he warned. “We must resolve to be unequivocal for Belarusian freedom and democracy. No more backsliding, turning that page, months, even a couple of years after things pass and say, ‘Well, maybe we could work with the guy.’ We can’t. He’s a horrible dictator who needs to be in prison.”