US weighs action against Belarus for violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests

The top U.S. diplomat seemed to pump the brakes as the EU pushed for sanctions.

August 13, 2020, 4:23 PM

As the Belarusian government continues its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the U.S. has remained relatively muted in its response -- weighing whether the carrot or stick will work best in this historic moment for the former Soviet state.

In the four days since Belarus's contested presidential election was marked by allegations of rigging and intimidation, mass demonstrations against President Alexander Lukashenko's 26-year rule have swept across the country. But the autocratic president has responded with brute force, detaining at least 6,700 people and injuring hundreds more.

Protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with police after the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, in the early hours of Aug. 10, 2020.

The crisis comes months after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus in a bid to boost U.S. influence and move the country further from Russia's orbit. But that strategy, including new deliveries of American oil and gas and possibly dispatching a new U.S. ambassador, the first since 2012, is now imperiled amid rising calls for pressure on Lukashenko.

Women with flowers protest against police violence during recent rallies by opposition supporters, who accuse strongman Alexander Lukashenko of falsifying the polls in the presidential election, in Minsk, Belarus, on Aug. 13, 2020.
Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

Pompeo said Wednesday the U.S. is considering its options, but seemed to pump the brakes on any immediate action like halting those energy shipments or not sending an ambassador. Lukashenko booted the last U.S. ambassador and all but five embassy staff in 2012 after U.S. sanctions over human rights abuses.

President Donald Trump has not yet weighed in on the situation. Pompeo has avoided criticizing Lukashenko directly, while still decrying the elections as "not free and fair," condemning violence against peaceful protesters, and calling for "good outcomes for the Belarusian people."

The European Union is moving towards sanctions to achieve those outcomes. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Thursday the bloc must "increase the pressure on those in power," while Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said Wednesday, standing alongside Pompeo, that the EU "should not only issue declarations, but also will take some actions, take some measures."

But Pompeo wouldn't commit to anything concrete amid a tour of four Central and Eastern European countries, telling Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Wednesday, "We're still pretty fresh off this election, and we need to see how things settle out here in the near future."

The US flag is seen behind a fence for the US embassy in Minsk, Belarus, on March 07, 2008.
Viktor Drachev/AFP via Getty Images

Critics like Michael McFaul, President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, have accused Pompeo of pulling punches, noting that he didn't mention Belarus during a speech to the Czech Senate Wednesday that was titled, "Securing Freedom in the Heart of Europe."

Democratic lawmakers have called for the White House to withdraw the nomination of Julie Fisher, the career Foreign Service officer who was nominated in May to be the ambassador.

"While I support greater ties between the United States and the Belarusian people, now is not the time to be elevating the diplomatic relationship with Lukashenko's government. Sending an Ambassador to Minsk now, for the first time in over a decade, would signal that the United States condones these actions," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb. 1, 2020.
Nikolay Petrov/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

During her confirmation hearing before the committee last week, Fisher even noted the presidential election would be a key marker as the U.S. tries to thaw relations: "The first component to ensuring that we can continue to grow this relationship is to not see steps backward in the conduct of this presidential election."

But she also told the Senate panel, "The goal of this process is... to see whether our enhanced engagement can actually lead to greater results as we seek to support the aspirations of the Belarusian people" -- the same argument Pompeo made during his Feb. 1 visit to Minsk.

"We've seen improvement here, and we think our engagement can continue that, can help Belarus to continue to make improvements along the way," he said alongside Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.

ABC News's Patrick Reevell contributed to this report.