Six months after a fraudulent election in Belarus failed to rid the former Soviet republic of its longtime strongman, President Alexander Lukashenko, protesters on both sides of the Atlantic rallied to call international attention to their cause.
In Washington, the embassies of Poland and Lithuania jointly hosted a Feb. 6 evening of solidarity with those protesters, though attendance was capped at 40 people due to coronavirus health restrictions.
“We are all with you, together, for Belarus—all the countries of the European Union,” declared Piotr Wilczek, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, as participants—many of them wrapped in the red-and-white flag of Belarus—looked on. He reminded his audience that Feb. 6 also marked 110 years since the birth of President Ronald Reagan—a hero to millions of Poles.
“We in Poland remember Ronald Reagan and the United States for helping Poland during the very difficult time of the 1980s, supporting the Solidarity trade movement,” said Wilczek. “Now we, in Washington, on American soil—Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, other Europeans—we stand for Belarus.”
On Aug. 9, 2020, Lukashenko brazenly rigged the results of the country’s most recent election, claiming 80.1% of the vote. But opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said the election was a sham, and that in fact she won 60% to 70% of all ballots cast. The European Union immediately rejected the legitimacy of the balloting, called for new elections and condemned violence against protesters. The US government doesn’t recognize Lukashenko’s victory either.
Several weeks ago, the Atlantic Council published an issue brief, titled “Biden and Belarus: A strategy for the new administration.” Among other things, it urges Biden to meet with Tsikhanouskaya within his first 100 days in office and the State Department to refer to Lukashenko as “the former president of Belarus.”
Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Tsikhanouskaya herself fled to neighboring Lithuania, and her supporters in Minsk and elsewhere throughout Belarus vow to continue their enormous anti-government rallies until the dictator is gone.
“The people of Belarus are just like us, 40 years ago, in Gdansk in communist Poland, fighting for civil liberties, human rights and dignity. I am so delighted that there is such a large group here tonight, including our friends from Belarus who live here in D.C.,” said Wilczek. “Thank you for coming and for helping us express our solidarity with Belarus.”
Dovydas Spokauskas, chargé d’affaires at the adjacent Lithuanian Embassy on Sixteenth Street, acknowledged that “the human cost of this tragedy is much higher than we expected,” given the 33,000 Belarusians who have been arrested, and the hundreds who have been beaten and tortured.
“Despite it all, every Sunday the people will still come out, will still brave the evil regime, will be beaten, thrown into prison and will come out again into the streets to protest, because they have realized that this is enough,” said Spokauskas, noting the countless numbers of Belarusians who would be spending that same night in prison. “Our message from Lithuania, from Europe from everyone, should be very clear: we are with you, we will shelter you, we will expose the lies, we will expose the disinformation, and we will be with you until the very end when we once again, very soon, have you free, together, in the democratic family of nations.”
Also speaking were James Kulikowski, the State Department’s assistance coordinator for Europe and Eurasia, and Jaroslaw Anders, deputy office director at the department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Local protesters also heard from Denis Baranov, 35, a product manager living in the D.C. area, and a representative of the Belarusian diaspora.
“Although the fight has been going on for over 20 years, the last six months have been the most extensive fight we have ever seen. And it is incredible and encouraging to see the resolve of our people and the sense of community that it has built,” he said—joking that the last half a year has done more to build up Belarusian civil society than in the last 30 years.
But so much more remains to be done, said Baranov. He noted that in addition to Reagan, the first week of February coincides with the birthdays of two great military and political heroes of Belarus, Lithuania and Poland—Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kanstantsin Kalinouski—both of whom led uprisings against the Russian Empire.
“We look forward to the assistance that our neighbors can provide, and that the United States can provide to Belarus—both politically and in other forms of aid,” said Baranov. “It’s probably going to be a long fight ahead, but we are not giving up and our resistance is growing stronger day by day.”