U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun says Washington and its European partners will continue to press Belarusian authorities to free political prisoners, end violence against protesters, and allow citizens to choose their government through a free and fair election.
Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL by telephone on September 1 following a European tour that brought him to Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, and Austria last week, Biegun also warned that a Russian military intervention in Belarus would have a “very negative” impact on Moscow’s ties with the United States and European countries.
“You, the people of Belarus, have reminded us how important democracy and freedom are. We are in awe of the courage that you have shown, and we wish you the very best,” he said, vowing that the United States and its international partners “will work as closely as possible to ensure that you have the right to select your own government through a free and fair election under independent observation that is guaranteed to you by the Belarusian Constitution and by relevant international documents.”
“Please know that you have the support of the world as you advance your goals toward that end.”
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Biegun’s comments came as President Alexander Lukashenko is showing no signs of giving in to hundreds of thousands of citizens who have taken to the streets across Belarus since the results of the August 9 presidential election were published.
Lukashenko, who has kept a tight grip on Belarus for 26 years, was declared the winner of the vote, which was widely viewed as rigged in his favor, with just above 80 percent of the ballots.
The demonstrators want the 66-year-old Belarusian leader to step down, release all political prisoners, and hold new elections.
The United States and the European Union have criticized the vote as neither free nor fair and have called on the government to begin a dialogue with the opposition.
“We don’t see any progress at all” in the crisis, Biegun told RFE/RL, adding that the United States and the international community “will continue to press the Belarusian government” to meet its obligations under the charter of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Our basic demands are the immediate release of the unjustly detained…[and] an end the violence against protesters,” he said.
Amid Western condemnation of the post-election crackdown, Russian officials have backed Lukashenko and condemned what they said were attempts from abroad to take advantage of unrest in the former Soviet republic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week announced that a contingent of Russian security forces was prepared to deploy to Belarus in the event of "looting" by demonstrators.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met his Belarusian counterpart in Moscow on September 2, has claimed that "no one is making a secret of the fact that this is about geopolitics, the fight for the post-Soviet space."
However, Biegun told RFE/RL that the United States has “never seen Belarus as a contest between East and West, nor do we see it in that manner now.”
“This is a contest between the Belarusian leader and his own people. And we’re trying to work with our partners to keep this at the front of this,” he said.
Biegun also said he had told Russian officials during his visit to Moscow that “while we did not seek or see this as a geopolitical contest, there would be substantial consequences for the relationship between Russia and the United States, between Russia and Europe” in the event of a deployment of Russian forces to Belarus.
“The last four years has been very challenging for U.S.-Russian relations, but it is possible that it could be worse. And one of the things that would limit the ability of any president, regardless of the outcome of [the U.S. presidential election in November], in developing a more cooperative relationship with Russia, in any sphere, would be direct Russian intervention in Belarus.”