Envoy Julie Fisher: US cares deeply about Lukashenka’s threats, his criminal-like behaviour (interview)

It is highly unlikely that the United States will ease pressure on the Belarusian authorities even if they release all political prisoners, US Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher said in a recent interview with Belsat TV. The conversation was part of the news show Week aired on June, 27.

Belsat host Ihar Kuley: Madam Ambassador, it is great to talk to you again. On Monday, the United States imposed new economic sanctions on the Belarusian regime. Last time you visited us you said that the West should talk to Lukashenka in the language he can understand. Do I understand correctly – Monday’s sanctions was that language?

US envoy Julie Fisher: Thank you very much, it is really a pleasure to be back with you at Belsat again. The question of our actions on Monday is a piece of that language, it is a part of what we are trying to communicate to the authorities in Minsk. If we think of that in the ongoing conversation, then the actions on Monday absolutely, and I hope that it was heard in Minsk. It was a very clear message out of the European Union, its member states, out of the United States of America, out of Canada, and out of the United Kingdom – our clear rejection of the forced landing of the Ryanair flight for the purpose of arresting Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.

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

What if Lukashenka would release almost all or all political prisoners? He has played this game many times; what would be the reaction of the United States then?

For our part in the United States, we have been very clear about our expectations of the regime. We expect the release of all political prisoners and that is a number that unfortunately and tragically continues to go up every single day. We continue to see the regime moving in the wrong direction when it comes to political prisoners. We have called very clearly for the regime to engage in a genuine inclusive national dialogue that leads to a new election that can be conducted under international auspices. Those are the steps that are required and we have been very clear about our expectations in that regard.

US envoy Julie Fisher: ‘West must respond in terms that Lukashenka is able to understand’ (interview)

But if they release part of political prisoners, will the US lower political pressure on Lukashenka?

I do wanna be clear about something that I think is important. Each and every political prisoner, each and every one of those more than five hundred individuals represents a person, a family, a commitment to some kind of effort whether it was independent journalism, or other professions. I do not want to underestimate the impact of an individual’s release to the individual or family. But for our part in the United States, I do not anticipate there would be any reduction in pressure or certainly I cannot anticipate there would be any such action short of the release of all political prisoners, the engagement in a genuinely inclusive dialogue and a move towards new elections.

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

Now we see that the regime in Minsk is threatening Western countries with drug trafficking and illegal migration. The number of illegal migrants, mostly citizens of Iraq, has grown several times on the Polish and Lithuanian borders. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the number of flights from Baghdad to Minsk doubled as well. Does the US care about that or it is just a problem for the EU?

The US cares deeply about the impact of Lukashenka’s threats and his criminal-like behaviour that he is trying to bring to his neighbours. This is astonishing for a person who has claimed repeatedly in the past that he has regretted that the relationships with neighbours were not better, that he only has only one capital to turn to. The way he continues to threaten his neighbours more directly is astonishing. We care deeply about what is happening on the borders of our allies in the region and our partners in Ukraine. The question of what is happening on the border is one that we are working very closely with Vilnius and with Warsaw on. And we will continue to do that. And we will look for ways to increase our cooperation, and our coordination, and our information sharing with those capitals in order to help address those threats. Of course, the security of EU borders is one that is primarily a question for the EU and for those member states, but if they seek the US engagement in those questions, of course, we care deeply about what is happening there.

Wall may appear between Belarus and Lithuania

Madam Ambassador, now we see that Lukashenka is blackmailing the West using the issues of migrants, drugs, even nuclear components. Yesterday he said: ‘A signal is heard from across the Atlantic – help, as it was before, stop nuclear materials so that they do not end up in Europe. Western countries are trying to kill our economy and expect that we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars as before to protect your geopolitical interest. If you want us fight as before take steps in this direction, do not try to strangle us’. Did someone from the US send a signal to Mr Lukashenka about nuclear materials?

I’ll be honest with you – I do not know what he was referring to. The remarks that he gave last night were nonsensical on so many levels. There’s so much that does not follow in his remarks, it is almost hard to keep pace with it. But if he would like to look at where to assign responsibility, to lay the blame Belarus’ worsening economic prospects then he need not to look further than in a mirror, it is his actions, his regime that has truly and fundamentally altered the economic prospects of Belarus. It is much easier to look abroad and to blame others but the harder work to do is to look at home and understand the impacts of one’s own actions.

I would like to ask about Russia. Could this country be prevented from using weakness of the sanctioned Belarus? Would the US recognise an international agreement signed by Lukashenka, and what about economic egreements, for instance, selling Belaruskali to Russian oligarchs? Would you recognise that?

This is an important question of relationship and understanding the relationship between Minsk and Moscow right now. We have seen marked increase in the number of Lukashenka’s visits to Moscow, and it is difficult to get beyond the sort of top line and understand exactly what is being offered, what is being discussed. I think the most important question when it comes to Russia and its actions is how the people of Belarus are going to respond. Fundamentally, will the people of Belarus see as legitimate any agreements either selling off Belarus’ estate, enterprises, or any legal agreements potentially, will they recognise them as legitimate, because that is what should concern Moscow – how Russia will be perceived in the eyes of Belarusians, that I believe is the most important question.

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

You probably know the exchange of views at Putin-Biden meeting. What are the differences in positions of Washington and Moscow? We have heard two versions of this conversation – one from President Biden and another – completely different – from Mr Putin, or, to be more exact, from his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

I think it is important to know that we heard directly from President Biden, with regard oto discussion held on Belarus. I think there’s marked difference between a leader choosing to speak about that question versus having your spokespeople do it. President Biden was really clear about a couple of specific issues. The one that I really wanna highlight for your viewers is President Biden’s comments about the US commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. What President Biden said was it was not possible for an American president to engage and not raise questions about human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is fundamentally part of who we are as Americans and it is his obligation as an American president to do so. That truly does speak to what it is we are trying to do with regards to Belarus. I think it is important to put this meeting of two leaders in the context, it is important to recognise that they had an incredibly broad agenda of issues, pressing issues for these two leaders to discuss. This was not a meeting that was designed to bring in anyway some resolution on these questions. This was a meeting that was designed to allow them to exchange views and fundamentally, what we are trying to do is ensure that the people of Belarus can have their voices heard. And I think the question of how Russia goes forward is an incredibly important one and kind of role that they will choose for themselves is what will determine how they are perceived by the people of Belarus.

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

In recent years, the support by the US of Belarusian civil society did not exceed ten million dollars; one can compare to more than two hundred million for Ukraine. Even small Georgia has more support from Washington. Do you consider increasing the support for Belarusian civil society and independent media, e.g. Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office proposes to increase support to 30 mln. Is it feasible?

First, since last August, we have provided an additional 20 million dollars of assistance in support of civil society and independent media, trying to find a variety of ways to help civil society in the aftermath of last summer and its violence those who have been forced to flee Belarus and we are doing this in coordination with our partners in Lithuania, Poland, the European Union, other donors. The question of how it compares to the assistance provided to other countries… I would urge your viewers to recognise that there are different problems we are addressing that are specific and unique in Ukraine as well as in Georgia. I would know that I won’t agree that ‘even small Georgia’ is the best way to characterise this country, it’s been an important partner of the US since its independence and there is a real broad range of coordination and cooperation that is underway there. I think there is room to do much more in support of Belarus and its aspirations. We are working very closely with Mrs Tsikhanouskaya and her team to develop ideas for the very best ways we can work and support for a more democratic Belarus her views are incredibly important on these questions We are working as well with our partners in Congress to make the funds available that would help advance this effort.

Number of political prisoners in Belarus reaches 515