US envoy Julie Fisher about Lukashenka: ‘We would speak with him as person exercising power in Minsk’ (interview)

Last week US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher granted an exclusive interview to Belsat TV anchorman Syarhei Padsasonny. The conversation was aired as part of Sunday’s news show Week on May, 2.

SP: Madam Ambassador, our main question is ‘When will you go to Belarus?’

JF: That is a really important question and let me say thank you very much for inviting me today. It is a real honour for me to be here at Belsat, to be in these amazing studios that you have here, to be able to talk with you about our hopes, our dreams for what Belarus can be, what our relationship between Belarus and the United States might look like. I continue to hope that I will arrive in Minsk. It is very much my goal to untertake my responsibilities as the American ambassador to Belarus in Minsk. But in the current environment, I do not have a visa at this point, so while I am awaiting a visa, I am very much active on this account in engaging those with whom I can meet outside of Belarus.

You do not have a visa, but is it not enough to possess a diplomatic passport?

No, it is not enough. Any nation has its requirements about the travel of other citizens, there is a diplomatic process by which nations agree to specific individuals as ambassadors to each other’s countries. In fact, we had gone through that formality; we, the American side, had issued our agreement for a Belarusian Ambassador to Washington. It was unfortunate that he was unable to undertake his duties. I have that agreement from the Belarusian side, but in the meantime, I am unable to travel without a visa…

US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher in Belsat TV studio. Warsaw, 27 April 2021. Photo: Belsat

A few days ago, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey said: “If the US Ambassador wants to come and talk about the illegal regime, there is no sense in [her] coming”. Do you think you could arrive in Belarus and be silent?

I think it is unacceptable for us [American ambassadors] that we would accept limits on our diplomatic activity. There is a range of activities that diplomats undertake around the world every single day. And those activities include engaging with the press, they include observing a government’s functioning in the place where they serve. In the case of the USA, it is very important that we have the ability to attend trials, to observe the conduct of human rights. For me, what is important to understand is that I would be engaged in the full range of diplomatic activity inside of Belarus, because for the USA, we cannot accept limits to our abilities to do the work of the American people.

If you arrive in Belarus, what will you do with credential letters? Are you going to present them to Alyaksandr Lukashenka?

I think that the question to large extent is what can we get done with an exchange of ambassadors. I think there was an opportunity for us to learn from each other with an exchange of ambassadors. What I would do with my credentials, with these pieces of paper which rarely anybody ever pays attention to in most cases – I can only make that determination after I would be on the ground in Minsk and after I would be able to see my ability to operate on the ground. At this point, I would not make the commitment one way or the other with regard to those credentials.

To be clear – who is Alyaksandr Lukashenka for you, for the USA?

Alyaksandr Lukashenka is unquestionably the person who leads the government in Belarus, that is clear. He is the person who exercises power in Belarus. The elections last summer were conducted in a manner that was neither free nor fair. He then used the power that he exercises to bring violence to those who wanted to have their voices heard in objection to how those elections were conducted. The question of who he is is an important one, a very important one. But in the current environment, what is difficult to say is that he is the legitimately elected leader of Belarus, because we do not know what those election would have shown if we could have counted all the votes, if candidates could have freely competed in the elections, if they had not been put in jail, if the registration had not been denied.

But is he President or not?

He exercises leadership over the bodies of government in Belarus, there is no question about that.

US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher in Belsat TV studio. Warsaw, 27 April 2021. Photo: Belsat

The question is really important. If Lukashenka agreed to a dialogue, would you speak with him as President or…?

We would speak with him as the person who is exercising power in Minsk. In my opinion, the question of a dialogue is incredibly important one. It is absolutely one of the most essential steps out of the political crisis in Belarus. Let’s speak clearly – there is a political crisis and that political crisis continues. The United States believes that the way out of the political crisis depends on two important tracks, the first of which is the release of political prisoners. As of this morning, when I saw the latest numbers from the human rights connumity, there are more than 350 political prisoners still being held in Belarus. Their release is absolutely essential. Secondly, a dialogue where the authorities are engaging directly with those who lead the protest movement is another essential step to moving beyond this political crisis. That dialogue should lead to a new election which could be monitored and conducted under conditions which can be deemed free and fair.

The next question is about US sanctions. We know they have been approved, but they are not new, they are to be unfrozen. What does it mean? Will they be frozen again, as it was the case before, if Lukashenka starts another failed dialogue?

Let me clarify, it is a little bit technical, but it is actually quite important, Those sanctions which are against nine state-owned entities were enacted because Lukashenka’s government was holding political prisoners. Those sanctions were waived, they were not lifted, they were not ended. They were waived in 2015 due to the release of political prisoners. These sanctions are deeply tied to the question of political prisoners. In the current situation, the Department of State makes a recommendation to the US Department of Treasury about what we should do with these sanctions. In the current environment, when there are more than 350 political prisoners, it is absolutely inconceivable that the United States…

There are more and more [political prisoners] …

That is correct. This was an important signal for us to send that the current environment no longer allowed us to waive those sanctions. We are in a process of something called a wind-down, the Treasury has notified financial entities about it. And we will see the sanctions take effect, resume effect.

In the meantime, the question of what is the impact and what does it mean is an important one. I think it is another very strong signal about America’s commitment to stand with those who are working for a more democratic Belarus based on the rule of law. So, this signal is aced up, we have taken many steps this spring, particularly as we have watched in recent months as the government and the security services have increased the level of violence and the level of repression on the ground throughout Belarus. So, we will continue to look for tools, particularly in the absence of being able to have a direct dialogue. We will continue to look for tools to communicate in such ways.

US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher visiting Belsat TV Information Programming department. Warsaw, 27 April 2021. Photo: Belsat

You spoke about nine Belarusian companies; why is Belaruskali not on the list?

Belaruskali did not exist when these sanctions were being developed originally. The question of addition authorities and the question of additional targets for sanctions is one that will continue to work on and we will do that in partnership with our colleagues in European Union, its member states, the United Kingdom, other like-minded partners.

The unfreezing of sanctions was announced earlier than one expected, a week earlier; was that connected to the absurd information about the so called attack on Alyaksandr Lukashenka family?

Let me tell you about the timing of this, and then I will come back to the question. Again, the timing was met to send a signal. What was clear was that no moves were being made to meet the condition that would allow us to waive those sanctions. There was another week before the expiry of the waive of the sanctions, so our decision reflected our view that there were no moves being made towards the release of political prisoners. The question of, as you put it, the absurd allegation is actially quite unimportant issue to me. In some ways, I find it quite tempting for rational people to laugh at this, to know about the inconsistencies or the lack of details [in the case]. But what concerns me significantly about this is the genuine political crisis in Belarus, and instead of taking steps that would help move Belarus forward, Lukashenka has decided to focus on pointing a finger outside Belarus at alleged foreign intervention rather than taking a look at what are the real problems Belarusians face and what are the steps to move beyond the current crisis.

Why does Lukashenka blame Americans for the [might-have-been] attack?

I think this question had better be directed to him. But I would acknowledge that he does not just point the finger at the Americans, he points that finger at others as well depending on the day, perhaps, depending on the mood. Again, it is the desire to look elsewhere to blame others for the challenges Belarus faces rather than looking at the activities of his own government and himself.

According to him, presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin talked about that ‘attack’ on the phone. Did they? If so, what did they say exactly?

The White House released their statement about that phone call. And I would not add anything or subtract anything from the White House’s readout. I think right now it is important to recognise that our leaders need to be able to speak to each other and do so frankly. In the meantime, we will continue discussions about the human rights situation in Belarus, about developments on the ground, about opportunities for Belarus’ future and we will continue to do it with our partners in Europe on a very regular basis. And that is a big part of what I am doing on this trip here. I have just been to Vilnius and I have spent several days in Warsaw doing exactly that – engaging our partners.

For sure, your visit to Belsat is a kind of declaration as well… Why and what for do the Kremlin and President Putin use the so called attack? Putin made mention of it.

Again, I am not going to try to put myself in the mind of those two individuals. There is a little more psychology that I would like to get into.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka visited Moscow on Aprill 22. Was it a disturbing sign for the USA?

I think Minsk and Moscow have traditionally had a close relationship. The visit is not something that concerns or troubles me, it is something that I would expect. I have listened very carefully. As I have heard, Lukashenka talked about Belarus wanting to have friends, wanting to have relationships with the neighbours and beyond, with countries in the West, but he chooses not to take the obvious steps that he could take in order to build those relationships. So, the fact that he returned to Moscow is not a surprise, I think.

Why can’t we talk about Belarus without mentioning Moscow?

I think we can talk about Belarus without talking about Moscow. I do think it is quite possible but I recognise there are deep ties betweeen these two nations and you know, we all live in our own neighbourhoods, Belarus lives in it, we live in ours, the questions related to one’s neighbourhood are often important.

Do you think it is possible that Russia will incorporate or even occupy Belarus?

I hope it is not. A sovereign and independent Belarus is important to the United States. It is important to many in the West. I fear though that what we have watched happening very slowly over the 26 years is that Belarus has yielded its sovereignty and independence in small bits and pieces. There is an increasing dependency on Moscow. And the question for Belarus is whether or not that is good for the country.

US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher in Belsat TV studio. Warsaw, 27 April 2021. Photo: Belsat

Are there any steps that you would take in case of such occupation?

I think right now we are going to stay focused on supporting those who are working on the new election. That is where our energies are focused. That is what is important. This meaningful dialogue with those leading the protest movement under the auspices of the OSCE, this is absolutely critical, and that’s where our energies are focused.

Yes, we are talking about big-league politics, but we have to remember about our political prisoners. 350 persons have been recognised as political prisoners by Belarusian human rights organisations, by we know that their number is higher. What can you do for them?

I think there are a few things that would be of assistance to releasing political prisoners. First and foremost, I would urge those in power in Minsk to acknowledge that those whose views differ from theirs are not national security threats, not extremists and certainly certainly not terrorists. These are their fellow citizens who invest in Belarus’ future, and in the modern era, in 2021, there is room for dissenting voices and they should be in Belarus too. I think that is the most important first step for the release of politicial prisoners. While they remain imprisoned, it is our job in the West, it is my job as an American ambassador to continue to shine a spotlight on the plague of those who are being held. They deserve our voice, they deserve recognition by Western countries that care about freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the commitments that Belarus has made in the OSCE context and that is our job – to continue to shine this spotlight. I think there is a dialogue to be held on these questions, and I believe we can have a meaningful impact on those who are behind bars in Belarus.

You have met with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Who is Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya for the United States?

Mrs Tsikhanouskaya is an incredibly unique figure…

A really tough figure…

Yes, she is. The legitimacy and credibility that she earned last summer as she was thrust into a situation that she did not seek. She is not a career politician, she is not someone who envisioned herself running for the [presidential] office. The courage with which she approached that campaign along with the two other members of the troika [Maryia Kalesnikava and Veranika Tsapkala] was astonishing. I think people around the world were moved and inspired by her sacrifice and by her commitment. And as the campaign led to the fraudulent elections on that August night, which then yielded her forced exile, and the violence was perpetrated against those who were trying to have their voices heard, she has truly become the leader of the movement. That is what we recognise in her, that is so important, and that is why I have spent such a great deal of time meeting with her and trying to understand what it is the US can be doing that would make a difference for the future of Belarus.

Meeting of Julie Fisher and Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Vilnius, 19 April 2021. Photo: Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s press service.

But you did not meet with other leaders. Is Tsikhanouskaya just a leader or someone who is more than a leader?

I would say that there are many voices that make up this protest movement. I would put Mrs Tsikhanouskaya at the top of that, I do not think there is any question. But there are others whose contributions are absolutely essential. I have met with members of the Coordination Council, I have repeatedly met with Pavel Latushka who is playing a very important role. There are representatives of new political parties and the candidates who were imprisoned last summer, e.g. Viktar Babaryka’s team, I have met with them as well. I think it is important to maintain a broad range of contacts, this is important for me and my role. And what I see is a a group that is united in the goal of getting to that new election. There are of course differences amongst them beyond that, but there is a clear unity of where they are trying to go.

President Joe Biden said: ‘America is back.’ How does it work in Eastern and Central Europe?

It is wonderful to have President Biden’s leadership; his commitment and Secretary Blinken’s commitment to democracy and human rights has reinvigorated our efforts in Eastern Europe, in Belarus. Their commitment to supporting those working for the rule of law and a more democratic Belarus has provided a very clear path for it. But beyond President and Secretary of State, I would also mention that the US Congress has been deeply investing in Belarus for decades. And we have seen the leadership of senators and members of the House of Representatives support various versions of the Belarus Democracy Act over the better part of two decades. And that support of Congress has been absolutely essential.

Is President Biden’s administration going to invite Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to the White House?

One of the challenges that we have all faced in this last year is the pandemic. We have all been dealing with restrictions on travel, and who we can meet face-to-face, and who we can meet on the television screen. I am hopeful that in the United States we will soon turn the corner in terms of COVID-19. And we are going to start to resume to more normal day-to-day life that we all remember well. And I think returning to diplomatic visits is going to be a piece of that. It’s gonna take us a little bit of time to get there and of course, we are going to listen to what our scientists, our doctors tell us to do. But I am hopeful that we will be able to resume a robust set of engagements with Mrs Tsikhanouskaya in the coming month.

But is the possibility of such visit being discussed?

I would tell you that talking about visits is a very popular game. I can assure you that there are lots of talks about lots of visits.

But does such possibility exist? And if yes, is it a question of weeks, months, or…?

Again, I would say we are going to listen to what our medical professionals tell us in terms of resuming visits and that’s gonna take us time, let me say that. In Washington, we have not yet opened the doors for diplomatic visits.

I would like to ask you about independent media, this issue is of great importance for Belarus, because the situation the Belarusian independent media have found themselves in is very tough. Can we expect any help from Washington?

We see how essential the role of the independent media is in Belarus. We see how important the information that was gleaned last summer was to our understanding, particularly in the face of the pandemic, how important was the work of reporters who put themselves at personal risk to share information from what we were able to see, hear and learn [what was going on] on the ground. We will remain committed to independent jounalism particularly in Belarus, and we are looking for ways in which the United States can do more.

You know about sentences imposed on our journalists Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, they will have to spend two years in prison. Can the US help them?

I think that the pressure that is being applied to independent journalists is gravely concerning for us, just as the additional pressure on the Polish minority is, just as the additional pressure on athletes is, the additional pressure on teachers or cultural figures – all of these is an effort to suppress the dissent. The desire of the regime to keep journalists from reporting is something we will shine the light on and we will continue to shine the light on. We will keep at this question of political prisoners, including Belsat journalists.

Trial of Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova. Minsk, 18 February 2021. Photo: Belsat

Belarusian security services will be watching this interview; perhaps, even Alyaksandr Lukashenka will. What message would you like to send to them or to him?

I appreciate that, thank you. I think that the message that I would send is that ‘it is not too late’. It is not too late to make decisions that serve the people of Belarus. I believe it is still possible, and the United States would stand ready to assist in such a situation. We know that a sovereign and independent Belarus is important and there are decisions that Lukashenka will take and there are decisions that those around him and those in the security services will take about what they are or are not willing to do. I look forward to a day when Belarus will be a modern European nation and they can take the steps right now that will pave the way for that.

Madam Ambassador, if we take a look at your diplomatic career, we will see that you have worked in Russia, Georgia, Ukraine. Georgia and Ukraine are really independent now. So, will Ambassador Fisher be such hope for Belarus as well?

What I would like to be in my role of Ambassador to Belarus, what I hope to be is someone who can be a resource for the people of Belarus, someone who can help Washington understand what it is the people of Belarus, what it is they hope for, what it is they aspire to be. I hope that I can provide that channel and so that the people of Belarus can understand the prospective of Americans. That is ultimately the goal, and I believe when we can have that conversation, there is so much we can cooperate on, that would be important to both of our nations.

Why are you interested in this region?

The region has deeply interested me for my entire life. Me father was a naval officer, he frequently spent a lot of time working with our NATO allies and partners in the 1980s. I was a student when the Soviet Union collapsed. At the university of North Carolina we had some amazing professors and instructors who were deeply involved in academic exchanges and ties between the Soviet Union, later Russia, and the United States, and that had a real impact on me. It was an area going through such a tremendous amount of change, and I knew somehow that I wanted to be a part of that. And I feel that those issues which inspired me at that moment – another awakening that was occurring for so many across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – is still something that inspires my work today and continues to be why I am interested in this part of the world.

Belsat TV anchorman and Week host Syarhei Padsasonny. Warsaw, 27 April 2021. Photo: Belsat

What is the most fascinating about Belarus for you?

What is the most fascinating about Belarus for me right now is that I have not been there yet. I feel so deeply tied to so many Belarusians, I feel that I have gotten to know many people. It is a country that I want to get to know up close.

What would you say to the Belarusians who look at you and have great hopes?

I would say for the Belarusians who look to the United States or who look at me and my work that I am counting on the partnership, I am counting on understanding better what is on your minds and thinking about how the USA and Belarus and our partners in the neighbourhood, in the region, in the West, how we can do more for the benefit of all. That is fundamentally the question – whether Belarus can be a nation that is at work for its citizens rather than the other way around. I would like to explore that question much more deeply.

Madam Ambassador, thank you very much for your visit and granting the interview to us.

Syarhei Padsasonny/MS,