On March 22, 2021, world leaders, experts, and civil rights activists converged through the Kalinowski Forum at Vilnius University to discuss how to support those fighting for freedom in Belarus. Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), shared remarks virtually from Washington D.C., about the extraordinary pro-democracy movement striving to reshape Belarus’ future.
For a Free and Independent Belarus
I want to thank the Seimas of Lithuania and my good friend Zygis Pavilionis for organizing this forum of solidarity with the struggle of the people of Belarus for democracy and self-determination.
We meet as the Belarusian people are preparing to mark the 103rd anniversary of Belarus Freedom Day by renewing their calls for Lukashenka’s exit and for holding a free and peaceful election to choose a legitimate, representative, and democratic government.
These preparations are taking place in the midst of a growing crackdown on journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists, and workers. By suppressing independent voices and watchdog groups, the regime is silencing the witnesses of its brutality.
There are now 300 political prisoners in Belarus, and the cases of torture and inhuman treatment in state custody abound. New charges have been brought against the jailed former presidential contender Siarhei Tsikhanouski, and the detention of opposition leader Mariya Kalesnikava has been extended. Ihar Losik, the creator of the popular Telegram channel Belarus of the Brain, has been held for nine months, and he and several other detainees have gone on hunger strikes to protest their prolonged, oppressive, and retaliatory arrests.
The regime has criminalized independent journalism and truth-telling by imprisoning prominent journalists like Andrei Aliaksandrau of BelaPAN and Yulia Slutskaya, the founder of Press Club Belarus. And it has assaulted the heart of civil society by raiding the offices and arresting and beating members of the staff of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the country’s leading human rights and media freedom organizations.
All of this shows that the Lukashenka regime has no legitimacy, no mandate, no support. It rules by force alone, propped up by Putin who fears that the fall of Lukashenka would threaten his own political survival.
Since no domestic venue for achieving justice for the victims is available, redress must be sought at the international level. The cruel, inhuman treatment of independent voices must not be left unpunished.
Freedom Day on March 25 should be the occasion for the United States, in coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada to speak with a united voice in rejecting Lukashenka as the legitimate president of Belarus. Together, they need to impose broader, tougher, and strategically targeted sanctions, not only on high officials of Lukashenka’s inner circle but also on a wide range of officials, including prosecutors and judges, and rank-and-file personnel implicated in crimes against protestors, journalists, and opposition leaders.
Economic sanctions on mineral fuels and potash, Belarus’ key export products, would be an effective measure to weaken Lukashenka’s grip on power, as would disconnecting Belarus from the SWIFT system of worldwide financial transactions, which would be an important deterrent to the regime’s business partners.
Not least, the U.S. and its allies should raise the cost of Russia’s propping up Lukashenka by levying sanctions on Russian businesses, oligarchs, and other actors who are financing and otherwise aiding the regime.
Sanctions should be accompanied by increased aid to Belarusian democrats. Urgent support is needed for independent journalists and human rights defenders. Support is also needed for other civil-society actors such as emerging groups of workers, athletes, cultural figures, and educators who have not been involved before in public life yet are now demonstrating remarkable resilience under pressure. These groups need access to effective technological tools to protect themselves against state surveillance and censorship.
Support for Belarusian activists forced into exile is also essential. Lithuania and Poland have led by example in this regard by providing humanitarian visas for persecuted Belarusians, hosting them, and becoming de facto bases for the besieged opposition, exiled media, and civic groups.
It is not too early to begin providing capacity-building support to help prepare Belarusians for the difficult transition process that will begin once their country is free of Lukashenka.
The democratic world continues to be inspired by the perseverance of the Belarusian people. As the spring brings new hope, so does our coming together today to declare our renewed commitment to support them in their struggle for a better future. That future must start with the safe return to Belarus of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other persecuted opposition leaders, independent journalists, and civil society activists. Their return from forced exile, along with the exit of Lukashenka, the release of all political prisoners, and a new election, is the path forward to a Belarus that is free and independent and a Europe that is whole and free. Because of the courage of the Belarusian people, both of those goals are now within reach, and we must not relent until they become a reality.
Remarks by Carl Gershman, as prepared for delivery