Viachaslau Bortnik wrote this op-ed. He served as a Belarus country specialist at Amnesty International USA from 2012-2019.
For three months now I have not been able to recover from the aftershock from the recent events in Belarus. It takes me several hours daily to read independent Belarusian information sources, otherwise I cannot function normally. On my first trips to the U.S. in the mid-2000s, I had to explain to people where I came from. At best, my interlocutors thought that Belarus was somewhere in Russia. This August, the situation changed dramatically, and the front pages of the world’s leading publications were full of stories about the courage of the Belarusian people who dared to challenge the 26-year-old dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko.
It was the first time I had a chance to observe how hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters came out onto the central streets of Belarusian cities. I felt proud of my people. Then there was anger when thousands were detained and hundreds were subjected to torture and inhuman cruel treatment (the U.N. alone reported 450 cases.) Several people died at the hands of law enforcement. Despite all this lawlessness of the authorities, proud and brave Belarusians have continued to go out to daily protests for two months now.
Many commentators have called this protest season “the birth of the Belarusian nation.” And I would compare it to coming out. For the first time in 26 years, Belarusians not only realized that they were free people, but also announced this through peaceful protests attended by thousands.
Belarusian LGBT+ did not stand aside. Victoria Biran, perhaps the brightest activist of her generation, dropped all business in Berlin and flew to Minsk to be with the people in this most important period for the whole country. Rainbow flags flashed regularly at the protests. Like other participants in the rallies, LGBT+ activists did not escape detentions and arrests. My friend Natallia Mankouskaya was detained several times in recent months. On Sept. 29, a transgender activist Zhenya Velko was released from detention.
Victoria Biran was detained by masked riot police on her way to the Women’s March in Minsk on Sept. 26 and was likely targeted because she was carrying a rainbow flag. The police officer who later testified as a “witness” against her in court via a video link did not disclose his name and hid his face with a black mask. Although Victoria has committed no offense and was only intending to exercise her rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, she was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention. She is serving her sentence in the detention center on Akrestina Street, which has lately become synonymous with torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence, against detainees. Considering that Victoria was likely targeted by police as an LGBT+ activist, I am concerned that she may be targeted with violence in detention.
Amnesty International recognized Victoria Biran a prisoner of conscience, deprived of her liberty solely for peacefully exercising their human rights, and her case is emblematic of thousands of persons in Belarus detained in recent weeks.
The U.S. government is slowly responding. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has rejected the results of the Aug. 9, 2020, presidential election. On Oct. 1, the Belarus Democracy, Human Rights, and Sovereignty Act of 2020 was introduced in Congress. The Act would provide for the promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Belarus as well as support the aspirations of the Belarusian people to preserve the independence and sovereignty of their country in the face of the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
I would also like to bring to your attention the upcoming hearings to confirm former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Julie Fisher as the next U.S. ambassador to Belarus. Appointing an ambassador would strengthen American diplomatic presence and help advance U.S. national interests in Belarus and in the region. However, the timing of her arrival in Minsk and official interactions with the illegitimate and illegal regime could not be more unfortunate and could bring serious political implications for the U.S. I believe a special envoy should be appointed instead. The ambassador’s appointment, and the presentation of credentials to Alexander Lukashenko will serve as the de-facto recognition of his legitimacy as a 6-term president. The U.S. cannot normalize diplomatic relations with Belarus while Lukashenko remains in power illegally. The return of the U.S. ambassador should be pre-conditioned on the new presidential election in Belarus recognized by the OSCE as democratic, free and fair.