Former Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer: Belarus becomes more vulnerable (interview)

Could Russia use the Crimean scenario in Belarus? Why should the Minsk Agreements be declared dead? For what reason are the Belarusian authorities reluctant to invite a US envoy back? David J. Kramer, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour from in 2008-2009, has granted an interview to Belsat TV host Syarhei Pelyasa.

Wess Mitchell, US Assistant Secretary of State, has recently said that Ukraine, Georgia and ‘even Belarus’ offer the surest bulwark against Russian neo-imperialism. In your opinion, did he refer to Lukashenka’s Belarus, Belarusian society or the country in general?

I think what Wess was describing is more broadly applied to Belarus, not about Lukashenka. Lukashenka has not done a good job of defending Belarus’ sovereignty. And we see growing Russian influence, growing takeover by Russia of assets inside Belarus. I think what he was doing was stressing importance of sovereignty, a concept president Trump emphasized in his speech before UN General Assembly in September, and Belarus is one of the frontline states. It is a country that has not shown interest in signing an agreement with European Union, NATO – unlike Ukraine and Georgia, even Moldova, but it is a sovereign independent state. And Russia should respect Belarus as a sovereign independent state.

What is the role of Belarus in the current situation of tension over deploying a potential American base to Poland and US pulling from the missile treaty? Is it a sovereign actor or a marginal participant?

Belarus is in awkward situation right now. It is with Russia on a number of collective security organizations in the region, it is not a full partner of NATO to say nothing of being a member state of NATO. It does not seem interested in deeper cooperation with EU and yet it is facing tremendous pressure from Russia. Poland has been a key state in trying to support human rights in Belarus, support civil society in Belarus, getting information through Belsat into Belarus, and military situation could create a more uncomfortable situation in Belarus, because Mr Putin may view any further military buildup in this region as an excuse to engage more pressure on Belarus. So I think it is important not to sacrifice Belarus in this whole process, but to make sure that Belarus is preserved as a fully sovereign state.

What can the West, the US do to help Belarusian society stop Russian attempts to establish permanent military presence in Belarus or take away part of Belarusian independence?

I think the West has two main areas to focus on – one is in demanding Belarus sovereignty and territorial integrity to be respected, but at the same time, under Alyaksandr Lukashenka Belarus is a very authoritarian regime, so we need maintain focus and emphasis on human rights inside the country, where there are still people who get arrested for their political positions and there is pressure on civil society, pressure on journalists and we need to be able to do both, because if we simply view Belarus through Russia prism, then we are sacrificing our principles and values. So we have to assist Belarus sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also keep pressuring on human rights.

Kyiv is sceptical about Minsk as a venue for the negotiations on peace in Donbas. Would it be in interest of the USA to replace it?

I have argued for several years that we should declare the Minsk Agreement dead. It is not working, it is a bad agreement. Both of versions signed in September 2014 and February 2015 make no mention of Crimea at all, and Russia has not lived up with single provision under the Minsk agreement. I think continuing negotiations under Minsk is waste of time and in fact prolonging this situation. I would announce that the Minsk agreement is no longer valid and simply keep ratcheting up sanctions over the period of time until Mr Putin calculates that the costs of staying in Crimea and Donbas are too great and outweight the benefits. Russia does not even acknowledge that it has forces in eastern Ukraine so what is the point negotiating with the Russian side if they do not even recognise basic facts.

What has Belarus lost as a result of Russia’s agression against Ukraine?

Belarus becomes more vulnerable. Belarus has refused to recognise the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia despite Putin’s pressure on Lukashenka. One should also understand what is happening inside Russia. Mr Putin’s popularity and ratings are declining and he may look ways to solve the problem to try to drum up domestic support for something he does. That means Belarus remains exposed and vulnerable to Russian pressure as result of Mr Putins policies.

But it would not be so easy to sell this to Russian society that Belarus is the same enemy as ‘Banderovites’, ‘Ukrainian fascists’ because there are no ‘maidan’, i.e. protests or revolution, in Belarus…

Belarus poses zero threat to Russia. Belarus is not talking to EU about an association agreement, about visa free travel. There is no clear path to NATO right now. Belarus is not expressing any interest in joining NATO, unlike Ukraine and Georgia, so Russia has nothing to worry about something coming from Belarus. But Belarus has to worry about something coming from Russia Mr Putin is looking to deflect attention from his own domestic problems trying to project them on others.

Some years ago, it was rumoured that US Ambassador would return to Minsk, but this has not happened yet. Are their any hopes for his/her being back?

This has been going on for over a decade. Ambassador was expelled and we returned the favour by expelling Belarus ambassador. If Belarus is genuinely interested in deepening dialogue with the US, it will allow US ambassador to return. US embassy is stil understaffed. If Lukashenka was serious about dealing with the United States, then we will see the government in Minsk allow for return.

So, the ball is in the Belarusian court?

They moved first our ambassador. I was in government at that time. We did not kick out their ambassador until they kicked out ours. They took the first step, then we needed to take our step. I am not in the government anymore, so it is not official US policy. But if I were in the government, I would tell the representatives of the government in Minsk that yes, the ball is in your court.

Do you see any signs of Minsk’s will to tackle this problem?

I would think that the pressure from Moscow grows on the Lukashenka regime, and they might consider the step. The fact if in ten years they have not done so suggests that he is only using the west trying to offset pressure from Moscow. This is something Lukashenka has been doing for many years, it is brilliant and the West keeps falling into his trap. But if you were genuinely interested, it is easy to do. It is not difficult to tell us ‘please send back your ambassador, you can allow full staff in your embassy,’ but he has not done that.

In your opinion, could Russia use the Crimean scenario in Belarus?

I hope it is just propaganda. It would be another illegal annexation of another country by Mr Putin. I think the West needs to be very clear that there will be significant consequences.

Which consequences? How may the US react if Putin makes such a move?

I would kick Russia off the SWIFT banking mechanism and add Mr Putin to the sanctions list.

The interview was part of Belsat TV program Prasviet (World and Us)

Photo: Warsaw Security Forum