‘Lukashenka delivered sorrow, isolation for Belarus people’: US Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya grants interview to Belsat

During her recent visit to the Lithuanian capital city, US Deputy Secretary of State Uzra Zeya gave an exclusive interview to Belsat TV anchorman Ihar Kuley. The conversation was aired as part of the news show Week on November 21.

IK: I would like to start this interview with a question about your stay in Vilnius. Being on a three-day visit here, you are going to take part in The Future of Democracy conference. And today you are also having a meeting with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. What do you expect from this trip and from the meeting with Tsikhanouskaya?

UZ: My expectations from this visit are to strengthen our partnership with the government of Lithuania on supporting democracy and freedom for the people of Belarus and all over the world. I am honoured to be a speaker at the Future of Democracy Forum tomorrow, but I am also looking forward to seeing Ms Tsikhanouskaya. Again, I had the honour to meet her shortly after I was sworn-in as Under Secretary in Washington, where there was great deal of interest and concern and support for her efforts to realize the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people.

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I think that another reason why you are here now is the migration crisis on the EU borders. What is the United States’ assessment of this crisis, and who do you hold responsible for its emerging?

We are deeply concerned by the Lukashenka regime’s inhumane actions and we strongly condemn the callous exploitation and the coercion of vulnerable people and the facilitation of migration flows across its borders.

But we also see this as an extension of the brutality that the regime has forced upon its own people. So, we are here in Vilnius to underscore our solidarity with the Lithuanian government, our support for the enforcement of the borders. And we stand with the European Union and other partners in support of the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people.

Мigrant throwing stones at Polish border guards. Bruzgi-Kuznica checkpoint. 16 November 2021. Photo: SHOT / Telegram

Does the US deem Lukashenka as a person who can drag NATO and Russia into an armed conflict? Many people believe that the migration crisis might trigger a much more serious situation, that it might be a ‘spark’ resulting in some incident between the Polish and Belarusian border guards, which, in turn, might lead to a local conflict or even war.

There is no doubt that this crisis with respect to irregular migration is the responsibility of the regime in Minsk. But I would also say that I am seeing very strong transatlantic solidarity on this issue and support for the governments of Poland and Lithuania in this context. I just came from Brussels, where I met counterparts from the EU who underscore this position. I think just yesterday you might have seen the statement of solidarity issued by foreign ministries of G7 not only the US and Europe, but also Canada, Japan, and international community, I believe, shares the result and shares condemnation of the actions taken by the Belarus regime. But we are also very mindful of the need to basically exercise restraint and any possibility of the hypothetical situation that you’ve mentioned. This is why close coordination, close consultation among allies is essential.

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Do you agree that Alyaksandr Lukashenka is responsible for creating this migration crisis?


US Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya. Photo: Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters / Forum

Many Belarusian opposition activists keep urging the world to recognise Lukashenka as an international terrorist. Perhaps, it is high time to do it?

I think you’ve seen our condemnation of his actions, our demands for what we want to see occur. I have been resolute and very clear about what we are calling for – the immediate release of the political prisoners. the cessation of this brutality against the Belarusian people inside and outside Belarus, the cessation of this migration crisis, a genuine meaningful dialogue with the peaceful opposition and free and fair elections under international observation which would give the Belarusian people the chance to realize the democratic aspirations. So, I think our position is quite clear as is our resolve to continue pressure and demand accountability as the regime refuses to accept international obligations.

The Lukashenka regime forced a passenger plane to land in Minsk…

It was an outrageous action.

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The regime jailed and tortured thousands of Belarusians. More than one thousand persons are still behind bars. People were beaten and killed in the streets, and no investigation was launched over the crimes. Now the regime has staged an artificial migration crisis. And my question is: what else should Lukashenka do to be recognised as an international problem? Well, not a terrorist, but as a big international problem. And what else should Lukashenka do so that really harsh sanctions would be imposed on the regime?

I can tell you that we are in close consultation with the Lithuanian government, with our European allies. We are preparing follow-up sanctions in close coordination with partners; that will hold the regime accountable for its ongoing attacks on democracy, human rights, international norms. I think maintaining this pressure is quite important as is international solidarity and particularly, transatlantic solidarity going forward.

Аlyaksandr Lukashenka receiving Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande in Мinsk. 12 February 2015. Photo: anna-news.info

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called Lukashenka twice this week, which is met with an outcry by Belarusians who consider those telephone conversations as inappropriate. In 2020, when protesters were beaten in the streets of Minsk, Merkel and Macron also phoned Lukashenka, but he failed to answer then. And now he seems to be talking to Merkel on his own terms. So, one can get the impression that democratic leaders simply cannot cope with dictators like Lukashenka.

I believe that democracies when they are united, when they rally together can prevail over dictators like Lukashenka. But I think what is important here is continual close communication and coordination, this is one of the reasons why I am here, why I have visited Brussels. I am one of many American officials who have been in the region, my senior official for economic affairs was here just recently. We have many other senior Americans crossing through Brussels this week. So, we believe that the US, the EU, Lithuania, and our other partners and allies including the Canadians and the UK, we are all standing together in supporting the leadership of Lithuania, Latvia, Poland in confronting the challenges presented by the Lukashenka regime, but also in continuing to support the democratic aspirations by the Belarusian people, and that is why I am here to meet the Coordination Council and also Belarusian human rights and civil society activists. And we appreciate the depth of support and refuge that the government of Lithuania has offered.

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Don’t you think that democracy is in crisis now? Sometimes it seems that democracies and leaders of such states are not able to oppose to people like Vladimir Putin, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, or China which is gaining strength. Such leaders look strong and confident, and democratic leaders seem to be confused…

I believe there was very strong unity and resolve on the issue of Belarus in supporting democratic aspirations of Belarusian people. I think if you ask yourself ‘What has Lukashenka delivered for his people’, [the answer would be] ‘he has delivered sorrow, he has delivered international condemnation, he has delivered isolation’. Meanwhile, democracy, of course, is facing daunting challenges, i.e. the rise of authoritarianism amidst the continual scourge of corruption, the proliferation of human rights violations around the world, but these challenges are the motivations behind President Biden’s determination to rally together the world’s democracy in the summit for democracy, which is one of the focal points of my discussions here in Vilnius. I will be taking part in the forum Future of Democracy that is starting tonight. We’ll be bringing together democratic leaders from emerging and established democracies all over the world to make commitments and to move forward together on this agenda.

US Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya. Photo: Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters / Forum

There is no doubt that if it was not for the support of Russia and Putin, Lukashenka would not have endured in 2020. Is the United States ready to make the support of the Lukashenka regime too costly for the Kremlin?

I think our concern with respect to Russia’s destabilising actions and influence efforts are well-known. We, the United States, alongside our european allies, are transatlantic allies, we are committed to [the idea of] A Europe Whole, Free and At Peace. We have no illusions with respect to Putin’s actions and his track record; we know that Russia will take advantage of situations when it can use them to its own advantage.

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This is why I think the resolve of transatlantic communities is critical when we are faced by this manufactured humanitarian crisis created by Lukashenka and also why we cannot forget the ongoing severe violations of freedom and human rights according to my information, to date there are over 873 political prisoners in Belarus, including Belsat journalists. It is absolutely unacceptable and it [its number] should be zero. I want to be clear: you know, our government will continue to work in lockstep with our European partners to make sure that their fate is not forgotten and we continue to call for and bring about their unconditional release.

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Washington, 20 July 2021. Photo: tsikhanouskaya / Telegram

Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office and representatives of the Coordination Council repeatedly stressed the need to support civil society, not only to exertsanctions pressure on the regime. What action is the United States taking in this direction?

I am proud of the fact that the united states has supported civil society and independent media in Belarus since 1991. We know that the Belarusian people are now enduring the 27th year of Lukashenka’s dictatorship. We are absolutely resolved to continue our efforts to support the ability of Belarusians themselves to lead and to bring about the democratic future so long denied them. The parts of this building box are free and independent media, civil society that can hold the government accountable and, of course, free and fair elections that reflect the will of the people and hold the government to account. We want to see the government that serves the citizens that does not persecute its own citizens. And we want the citizens of Belarus to be able to hold the government to account.

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