Belarus opposition figures are urging Western governments to collectively make it clear to the Kremlin that Russia must avoid a military intervention to save Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.
They want Western nations to announce their readiness to stand by the Budapest Memorandum, an international protocol signed in 1994 guaranteeing the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Belarus.
In a video interview with VOA and other news outlets, Valery Tsepkalo, a former diplomat, and one of Lukashenko’s main electoral rivals until forced into exile, says the West should immediately recognize Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate ruler of the country—in the same way it recognized last year Juan Guaido in Venezuela as the legitimate ruler after declaring Nicolas Maduro’s presidency illegitimate.
The 55-year-old Tsepkalo, who served for five years as ambassador to United States, says Tsikhanouskaya is “seen in the mind of every person in the Republic of Belarus” as the real winner of this month’s election. Tsepkalo fled Belarus before the poll, after being disqualified from standing. He feared he’d be imprisoned or that his children might be abducted.
Two other key contenders were imprisoned before voting took place, including Tsikhanouskaya’s husband, a well-known blogger. She and Tsepkalo’s wife, Veronika, joined forces, and along with Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign manager, presented a united female front against authoritarian leader Lukashenko in the run-up to the August 9 presidential election.
Lukashenko claims he won 80 percent of the vote, a tally disputed by his opponents and Western governments. European Union leaders midweek refused to recognize the results of the election. They say they intend to impose sanctions on officials involved in electoral fraud, and the violent repression of pre-election rallies and post-election protests, marking the biggest challenge to Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.
“The EU will impose shortly sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud,” European Council President Charles Michel said at the end of an emergency summit of EU leaders. EU officials are calling for a peaceful dialogue between the government and the opposition to arrange a “transition of power in Belarus.”
Michel said the situation in Belarus is “increasingly concerning,” dubbing violence against peaceful protesters as “shocking and unacceptable.” About 7,000 people were detained, and hundreds, including reporters, were injured with rubber bullets, stun grenades and clubs in just the first four days of demonstrations following the poll.
At least two protesters have died.
Valery Tsepkalo says, aside from now recognizing Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as president-elect of Belarus, Western states should avoid doing anything that might be seen as legitimizing Lukashenko, including appointing any new ambassadors to Minsk. “Do not send any ambassadors, new ambassadors to Belarus at this time,” he advises.
For Tsepkalo, the international move to recognize Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate winner of the August 9 election would help to erode any residual support that may remain for Lukashenko in the ranks of the country’s armed forces. It would allow generals and senior officers a justifiable reason for ignoring any instructions from Lukashenko.
“It would help the transition of power because many guys from the army and from law enforcement agencies, they do not want to resign,” he says. “They would like to continue to serve the country,” he says.
Tsepkalo said he doesn’t believe Lukashenko can now count on the loyalty of the army, and he is doubtful the country’s generals and top military commanders would obey an order to deploy to the streets to suppress continuing anti-government protests. He says there have been reports that defense chiefs have been demanding written orders from Lukashenko, something he has been fearful of doing “because he is very afraid of [the] consequences” for himself.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended Belarusian protesters Thursday. “The United States has been inspired by the display of peaceful expression of the Belarusian people seeking to determine their own future,” America’s top diplomat said in a written statement. “We stand by our long-term commitment to support Belarus’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the aspirations of the Belarusian people to choose their leaders and to choose their own path, free from external intervention.”
Tsepkalo says a formal re-commitment by all Western states to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum would send a “strong message” to Russia. The protocol refers to three identical political agreements signed at a conference in Budapest overseen by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The agreements provided security assurances to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any of the trio. In return, Belarus and the other two states gave up their stockpiles of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
The protocol was cited by Ukraine’s leaders when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 — to little avail. Tsepkalo acknowledges the Budapest Memorandum "didn't work" to stop Russia from absorbing the Ukrainian peninsula. He adds, though, the commitment could still be useful, saying it would demonstrate “very, very strong moral support for Belarus' independence.”
Both Valery and Veronika Tsepkalo, who are together now in exile in Moscow, emphasize that the agitation against Lukashenko is neither anti-Russian nor pro-EU. He says he is hopeful Belarus and Russia will remain friends.
During the interview, Veronika Tsepkalo declined, when asked by a journalist, to draw any parallels with protests in Russia against President Vladimir Putin. “Our situation is unique,” she says. “We just want to change our country and have the right to be independent,” says Veronika Tsepkalo.
“We don't want to be part of Russia. We don't want to be, or are ready to be, part of the European Union. So, we just want to stay independent,” she says.
Western diplomats and analysts say Putin's biggest fear is the emergence of a Western-oriented, EU-friendly Belarus, but there is mounting evidence the Kremlin is not wedded to Lukashenko remaining in power. Some Russian members of parliament have expressed disdain publicly for Lukashenko, criticism that’s unlikely to have been voiced without the prior go-ahead behind-the-scenes by the Kremlin, say analysts.