Embattled Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko should begin talks with the organizers of mass street protests that have rocked the nation since last summer’s disputed presidential election, American diplomats have urged.
In a speech at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on Thursday, the US charge d’ affaires to the Permanent Council, Courtney Austrian, said that her country backed calls by opposition figurehead Svetlana Tikhanovskaya for negotiations with the government. The US, she said, “hopes such a dialogue will lead to the negotiations necessary for new, free, and fair elections in Belarus.”
“It is unconscionable that nearly 300 political prisoners are incarcerated in Belarus,” Austrian said, adding that “to all of those risking their lives to confront tyranny: America hears you. America sees you. And America stands with you.”
The opposition, and many international observers, claim that last year’s presidential elections were rigged, with hundreds of thousands taking to the street to demand a new vote. Widespread arrests and scenes of violence have followed.
Tikhanovskaya, who insists that she was the true winner of the poll, left the country shortly afterwards, and has continued to campaign from neighboring Lithuania. Earlier this week, in a speech she claimed took seven months to prepare for, the Western-backed former candidate unveiled an online poll asking Belarusians whether they supported talks with Lukashenko.
However, the Belarusian ambassador to the UN, Yury Ambrazevich, told reporters that officials weren’t considering the request, and viewed her as a minor figure. “Look at who Tikhanovskaya is,” he said. “Look online to see how many social media followers she has. This number has never exceeded 100,000. That says it all.”
Instead, Ambrazevich claimed, “The authorities have already clearly indicated the path to change. Specifically, they are providing citizens with the opportunity to express their views on amendments to the Constitution and the modernization of our political system. The president has announced that, in a year, we will have a new Constitution.”
He argued that the widespread unrest was “prepared and coordinated by various groups and social media channels… so, there was an aspect of the protests that we in Belarus see as an attempted coup d’état.”
Lukashenko has said that he will stand down and call an election once the new document is in place. However, a number of opposition figures have expressed concern that this could simply be a delaying tactic.
Like this story? Share it with a friend!