Quietly, the U.S. national security state is turning up the heat on Belarus, hoping that the ex-Soviet country of 9 million will be the next casualty of its regime-change agenda. This sentiment was made clear in President Joe Biden’s recent speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Biden announced that the U.S. would pursue “relentless diplomacy” finding “new ways of lifting people up around the world, of renewing and defending democracy.” The 46th president was explicit in whom he meant by this: “The democratic world is everywhere. It lives in the anti-corruption activists, the human rights defenders, the journalists, the peace protestors on the frontlines of this struggle in Belarus, Burma, Syria, Cuba [and] Venezuela,” he said, putting Belarus first on the list of states in desperate need of a change in government.
This builds on the back of previous statements the administration has released. In June, a joint announcement by the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and the European Union essentially pronounced the death penalty on the Lukashenko government, in power since 1994. “We are committed to support the long-suppressed democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus and we stand together to impose costs on the regime for its blatant disregard of international commitments,” they wrote, as they announced new sanctions.
A “modest but significant contribution”
Covertly, Washington is taking far more wide-ranging action. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is spending millions of dollars yearly on Belarus and has 40 active projects inside the state, all with the same goal of overthrowing Alexander Lukashenko and replacing him with a more U.S.-friendly president. Although not a single individual or organization is named, it is clear from the scant public information it reveals that Washington is focusing on three areas: training activists and civil-society organizations in non-violent regime-change tactics; funding anti-government media; and bankrolling election-monitoring groups.
Earlier this year, on a Zoom meeting infiltrated by activists and released to the public, the NED’s senior Europe Program officer, Nina Ognianova, boasted that the groups leading the nationwide demonstrations against Lukashenko last year–actions that made worldwide headlines–were trained by her organization. “We don’t think that this movement that is so impressive and so inspiring came out of nowhere–that it just happened overnight,” she said, noting that the NED had made a “modest but significant contribution” to the protests.
On the same call, NED President Carl Gershman added that “we support many, many groups and we have a very, very active program throughout the country, and many of the groups obviously have their partners in exile.” Gershman also boasted that the Belarusian government was powerless to intervene and stop them:
We’re not like Freedom House or NDI [the National Democratic Institute] and the IRI [International Republican Institute]; we don’t have offices. So if we’re not there, they can’t kick us out.
The NED was set up by the Reagan administration as a front group for the CIA, to continue the agency’s work in destabilizing other countries. “It would be terrible for democratic groups around the world to be seen as subsidized by the CIA,” Gershman said, explaining its creation. Another NED founder, Allen Weinstein, was perhaps even more blunt: “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA,” he told The Washington Post.
Belarusians are largely ignorant that this is going on beneath the surface. A poll taken by the NED’s sister organization USAID found that around two-thirds of the public were unaware of the actions of any NGOs inside their country, let alone where their funding came from.
The chosen one
The U.S. and Europe have not only decided Lukashenko must go, but have even agreed on his replacement. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a 39-year-old former schoolteacher and wife of anti-government activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, is the D.C. establishment’s clear candidate of choice. Described almost universally in corporate media as a pro-democracy activist, Tsikhanouskaya emerged from obscurity last year after her husband was barred from standing in the 2020 elections. Sergei is currently on trial for his role in organizing the nationwide demonstrations last year, an event the government sees as a coup attempt.
The government reportedly detained tens of thousands of people, and it was this heavy-handed response that added fuel to the flames of protests, turning them into a demonstration against political repression.
If convicted, Tikhanovsky faces up to 15 years in prison. Sviatlana ran in his stead, officially winning 10% of the national vote (although she maintains that she actually won an overwhelming victory and that the contest was rigged). In recent months, she has been doing the rounds in the West, meeting with foreign leaders in an attempt to convince them to support her. In July, she traveled to Washington for a meeting with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who conveyed the U.S.’ “respect for the courage and determination of the opposition” in Belarus.
Later that month, Tsikhanouskaya received what she was looking for: an endorsement from the president of the United States. After an in-depth meeting with Joe Biden, he promoted her as the true leader of her country. “The United States stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights,” he said in a statement. She also received NATO’s blessing, meeting with senior figures from its think tank, the Atlantic Council, on several occasions.
At a recent event with the Council on Foreign Relations, Tsikhanouskaya made it clear that she was dependent on foreign support to continue her campaign. “We don’t have a lot of space inside the country. That’s why we are so [grateful for a large] amount of help from outside,” she said, telling the audience of business figures, state officials and media personalities that she and they “shar[ed] common values.” Perhaps the clearest indication that she had won the favor of the Western establishment were the rumors of a Nobel Peace Prize. At the time of its awarding, she was equal third with the bookmarkers, but ultimately lost out to journalists Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa.
I was honored to meet with @Tsihanouskaya at the White House this morning. The United States stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights. pic.twitter.com/SdR6w4IBNZ
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 28, 2021
Despite the official endorsements, there are strong indications that Tsikhanouskaya enjoys little public support in Belarus and that her position is largely buoyed by foreign backing. A study conducted by Chatham House and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) found that only 10% of Belarusians believed she would be a good president (as opposed to 25% for Lukashenko). Both Chatham House and RUSI are directly funded by NATO and its member states like the U.S., and both have previously advocated for regime change in Belarus.
More worryingly, Tsikhanouskaya appears to be among the least trusted and most disliked people in the entire country, the poll finding that even among people who supported the 2020 protests her trustworthiness score is negative.
Furthermore, the poll was carried out by an organization that makes blatantly clear throughout the report that it wants Lukashenko overthrown, and was conducted largely online, among tech-savvy, younger Belarusians in large cities–all groups that trend heavily towards being pro-protest and anti-Lukashenko. As such, the survey could barely have been designed any more favorably for Tsikhanouskaya. That even under these circumstances her popularity is so low is telling. Moreover, the polling was carried out before she began touring the West, asking for more crippling economic sanctions on her own country.
Why, then, has the West decided to champion her, and not other opposition leaders, many of whom have a far greater support base according to the poll? One explanation is that the Lukashenko administration has already imprisoned them. Viktar Babaryka, for example, was sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony for a host of financial crimes. Amnesty and other Western organizations have described the ruling as “politically motivated.” Other opposition figures, such as Maksim Znak and Maria Kalesnikava have also been jailed.
Another reason could be Tsikhanouskaya’s seeming total willingness to be a representative of the U.S. government in Belarus. Her senior advisor, Franak Viačorka, for example, is a consultant for the U.S. Agency for Global Media; the creative director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, an organization described by The New York Times as a “worldwide propaganda network built by the CIA.” He is also a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a NATO-linked organization that boasts no fewer than seven former CIA directors on its board. At an Atlantic Council event in July, Tsikhanouskaya called on the West to do more to overthrow her opponent, saying “I think it’s high time for democratic countries to unite and show their teeth.” According to the NED’s Gershman, the U.S. continues to work “very, very closely” with her.
Tsikhanouskaya’s ascension from obscurity to political stardom mirrors that of Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. contends is the country’s rightful president. According to Cuban intellectual Raul Capote, whom the CIA recruited to become president of the country after what it hoped would be a successful regime-change attempt, the U.S. prefers to work with unknown figures because of their lack of political baggage and Washington’s ability to shape them in a manner it sees fit. Tsikhanouskaya apparently sees herself in the same mold as Guaidó, describing him as “inspiring.” Meanwhile, Venezuelan anti-government demonstrators can be seen flying the flag of the Belarusian opposition at rallies.
Sviatlana @Tsihanouskaya líder de la alternativa democrática en Bielorrusia, es un ejemplo de resistencia y dignidad para quienes luchamos por libertad y democracia. Ambas son causas globales. La lucha de uno, sin importar las fronteras, es lucha de todos. #TIME100NEXT https://t.co/ZiP26j1mG4
— Juan Guaidó (@jguaido) February 18, 2021
Tsikhanouskaya fashions herself merely as a “transition president” who would not run for re-election after Lukashenko falls. This is eerily similar to how Jeanine Añez, the U.S. backed Bolivian leader who came to power after a coup against Evo Morales in 2019, described herself. Like Tsikhanouskaya, Añez was also an obscure political figure held up by the United States as the savior of democracy. Despite describing herself as the “interim president,” she immediately began radically transforming the country’s economy and foreign relations, privatizing state assets and moving Bolivia closer to the U.S. She also suspended elections three times before being forced to concede after a nationwide general strike paralyzed the country.
While in the United States, Tsikhanouskaya made sure to publicly meet with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland. To those in the know, this was another clear message. Nuland was the brains behind the U.S.-backed Maidan Insurrection in Ukraine that overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych, bringing in a far-right, pro-Western administration. Nuland flew to Kiev to personally participate in the demonstrations herself, even handing out cookies in Independence Square in the city center.
At the Council on Foreign Relations, Tsikhanouskaya said she saw “a lot of parallels” between her situation and the Maidan, adding that “the Belarusian people will fight till our victory.”
Journalist or Neo-Nazi paramilitary poster child?
A second Ukrainian connection is the case of the arrest of opposition figure Roman Protasevich. In May, the Belarusian government forced a Ryanair flight between Greece and Lithuania that Protasevich was on to land in Belarus so that they could arrest him. By way of an excuse for the flagrant breach of international law, the government claimed it had received a credible bomb threat.
Video footage has now emerged of so-called 'Belarus Journalist' Roman Protasevich who it appears was in fact part of the neo-Nazi 'Azov' Battalion and fought in the #Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/MUyOc9tng3
— Dean O'Brien – BA (Hons) (@DeanoBeano1) May 26, 2021
Western nations strongly condemned the move, imposing sanctions on Belarus in retaliation. Left unreported in Western media, however, were Protasevich’s ties to both the Maidan Revolution and to Western governments. Universally described as a courageous journalist, Protasevich had, in fact, been a member of the infamous Azov Battalion, a Neo-Nazi paramilitary that did much of the heavy lifting to overthrow Yanukovych. He was literally the group’s poster child, appearing on the front cover of its magazine Black Sun in full fatigues and holding a rifle. The Azov Battalion has since been absorbed into the Ukrainian armed forces.
After leaving the Azov Battalion, Protasevich was awarded the Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship in Prague and worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Thread. Re Protasevich and Azov. Here's what's out there to be analyzed against other evidence, commentary: 1st photo is Protasevich, 2nd photo is the cover of Azov's "Black Sun" publication July 2015 issue #15. 3rd photo is what @azure says: "0.70 confidence" (that's high-ish). pic.twitter.com/ucrjma8GEd
— Oleksiy Kuzmenko (@kooleksiy) May 25, 2021
Protasevich had traveled to Greece to attend a meeting with Tsikhanouskaya, the president of Greece, and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt. Officially, he was there as a photographer. However, these connections certainly suggest there could be more to this story than meets the eye and that perhaps Belarusian authorities suspected something about the meeting, taking a calculated decision to detain him at all costs. What they found out or what information Protasevich was carrying will likely never be made public.
Посчастливилось поснимать @Tsihanouskaya в ходе её визита в Афины.
Было безумно круто получить такой опыт! Больше фото — в официальных аккаунтах Светланы Георгиевны. pic.twitter.com/ugHVHXLzrQ
— Roman Protasevich (@pr0tez) May 16, 2021
U.S. supports plenty of tyrants, just not those who won’t play ball
The primary reason the U.S. government opposes the Lukashenko administration is not its authoritarianism, real as that might be. Even by its own definitions, the U.S. actively supports around three-quarters of the world’s dictatorships. Instead, Lukashenko’s steadfast refusal to privatize state assets, join NATO, or open the country up for foreign exploitation are Washington’s principal objections. Lukashenko has directly controlled the country since 1994; and, unlike the other former republics of the U.S.S.R., he has retained state control over industry and the comprehensive welfare state built up in previous decades.
As a result, there is essentially no extreme poverty in Belarus; according to a report by the World Bank and European Union, only 0.4% of the population live on less than $5.50 per day, with no one living on less than $3.20. This cannot be said for its neighbors; the number of people per capita living on less than $5.50 per day is 10 times higher in Lithuania and 18 times higher in Russia. In some other ex-Soviet countries that took different paths, such as Armenia and Georgia, the vast majority live in poverty, with fewer than 10% earning $10 or more per day.
Much of this reduction in poverty occurred in the 2000s. As most countries were entering a protracted recession after the 2008 financial crisis, Belarus was going from strength to strength. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of people unable to spend more than $5.50 per day dropped from 38.3% to 0.4%, while those making a middle-class income (defined by the World Bank as being able to spend more than $10 per day) rose from under 20% to over 90% over the same period, a feat the World Bank–no lover of Belarus or the U.S.S.R.—described as “impressive.”
The government continued to provide universal healthcare and socialized housing while developing new industries such as the tech sector. During this time, economic inequality actually decreased, Belarus becoming as equal as the Scandinavian countries much feted for their progressive societies.
Since 2015, however, the economy has struggled. The World Bank’s advice to Belarus was predictable: privatize, cut benefits (particularly heating allowances) and allow business to do its job. The Lukashenko administration has actually partially moved in that direction, a decision the World Bank described as “encouraging.” For the first time, the state now directly employs fewer than half the workforce. However, this has led to increases in poverty and a reduction in support for Lukashenko, who once seemed untouchable. Nevertheless, a survey conducted by hostile neighbor Poland still found the 67-year-old former state farm boss had a 41% approval/ 46% disapproval rating (not dissimilar to that of Trump and Biden).
Hardly helping this have been the U.S. and European sanctions that have targeted the country. While billed as an effort to “get tough” on the Lukashenko “regime,” sanctions, as the United Nations notes,
disproportionately affect the poor and most vulnerable.
In August of this year, the U.S. announced a new round of sanctions, specifically targeting state-owned businesses in an attempt to make them less profitable. The European Union did likewise, also promising to pull Belarus out of its downturn if it overthrew Lukashenko. “Once Belarus embarks on a democratic transition, the E.U. is committed to help Belarus stabilise its economy, reform its institutions in order to make them resilient and more democratic, create new jobs and improve people’s living standards,” they announced, adding, “The E.U. will continue to support a democratic, independent, sovereign, prosperous and stable Belarus. The voices and the will of the people of Belarus will not be silenced.”
The government heavily restricts polling, so any gauge of the public mood in Belarus is far from precise. However, judging by the Chatham House/RUSI survey, it is clear that significant portions of the country support Lukashenko while other significant portions oppose him, along with some who are unsure. Opposing Lukashenko, however, does not necessarily translate into backing Tsikhanouskaya. Russia is by far the most popular country among Belarusians, 32% of whom want to formally unify with their larger neighbor. Only 9% want to join the E.U. and only 7% wish to join NATO. The U.S. is the most distrusted country, even among the young, urban tech-savvy citizens Chatham House and RUSI polled. Thus, while Tsikhanouskaya consistently claims to be the authentic voice of Belarus, it appears her prime constituency is in Washington and Brussels.
The United States might be able to hurt the Belarusian economy through economic warfare, but it is unable to make the people accept Washington’s chosen candidate. Living under an authoritarian system, Belarusians understandably dream of a more democratic future. However, they should be extremely careful whom they align themselves with: the U.S., NATO and the World Bank’s vision of democracy and prosperity might not align with what they naively had in mind.