Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the crackdown on protesters in Belarus, where the autocrat most closely tied to Russia is trying to contain a domestic outrage over a rigged election.
“Free and fair elections, genuinely contested, are the basis for the authority and legitimacy of all governments,” Pompeo said Monday. “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year grip on power earned him the informal title of Europe’s last dictator, but his claim to an overwhelming victory in the latest election has sparked major protests throughout the country. Lukashenko, whose nation has outsized geopolitical significance as a buffer between Russia and NATO allies in eastern Europe, has likened the crisis to the Maidan protests that culminated in the removal of a pro-Russian president in Ukraine, while United States and European observers have been stunned by the extent of the anger.
“The situation in Belarus right now is unprecedented,” an official from a former Soviet country told the Washington Examiner.
Lukashenko claims to have won roughly 80% of the vote in the race against his main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, 37, a teacher who sought the office after Lukashenko banned her husband from running a campaign.
"I believe my own eyes — the majority was for us," Tikhanovskaya said Monday. "We do not recognize the election results. We have seen real protocols. We urge those who believe that their voice was stolen not to remain silent.”
Lukashenko’s security services have tried to contain the outbreaks. The Interior Ministry reported more than 3,000 arrests, including 1,000 people in the capital city of Minsk.
"The resources of the security forces are diluted," Belarusian political analyst Artyom Shraybman told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a media outlet funded by the U.S. "They have had to disperse people from polling stations, and they cannot concentrate all their forces in Minsk because they need to leave assets in the regions and protect administrative buildings. As a result, the crackdown has not been focused on one location.”
The upheaval comes just months after Pompeo visited Belarus in an attempt to drive a wedge between Lukashenko and Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin aspires to force Lukashenko to form a new union state with Russia. Putin congratulated Lukashenko for his putative victory, but the statement contained a pointed reference to the union state and tighter security cooperation.
“Lukashenko is focused, first and foremost, on just staying in power, and he's going to take whatever path allows him to do that,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and former special representative for the crisis in Ukraine. “He's going to have support for that from Russia. It will just still need to be careful to preserve Belarusian independence because embracing the bear is dangerous.”
Pompeo’s rebuke of Lukashenko contained an implicit reminder that U.S. officials still want to stymie Putin’s ambitions in Minsk.
“As friends of Belarus, we support Belarusian independence and sovereignty, as well as the aspirations of the Belarusian people for a democratic, prosperous future,” Pompeo said. "To achieve these goals, the government of Belarus must prove through action its commitment to democratic processes and respect for human rights.”