One of the first things pointed out to me during my time as a Fulbright Scholar in Belarus in 2015 was that it continued to use the term “KGB” for its secret police, the only former Soviet republic to continue to do so. Its ominous headquarters in downtown Minsk was hard to miss, with its reported jail cells and interrogation rooms in the basement. Additionally, I was told early on, in a phrase known to Belarusians, “the walls have ears,” that people were very careful about when and where they said things because they feared someone was always listening and would report any subversive information to the KGB.

Alexander Lukashenko, Mike Pompeo

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Minsk on Feb. 1. Lukashenko has used fear as his tool for maintaining power for more than a quarter-century. Kevin Lamarque/Pool Photo via AP

That said, the reception I had in Belarus as a Fulbright was particularly warm, especially because of the fascination they had with my family’s Belarusian ancestry from over a hundred years ago. From academics to government officials, everyone was gracious. There was also fear, a lot of fear. I met with a number of doctors and experts outside of my official role in Minsk, all of whom wanted to share the dysfunction and corruption of the dystopian society they lived in. Oddly, not using a crosswalk to get across one of the long, broad boulevards struck fear into people in Minsk, I was warned early of the harsh penalty for doing so.

One day a doctor gave me a secret tour of a hospital, rooms filled with sick patients who had to send family members to Western European nations if they wanted effective medications – if they could afford to do so, which few could. Otherwise, there were Russian and Chinese generic imports, which were questionable but free. Paint peeling off walls in hospitals with little to no modern medical equipment, patients still had to provide their own medical supplies if they needed surgery, as had been common in Soviet times.

The mastermind of this society was and is the current president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko.  Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager turned autocrat, has by his own personal report won every election he has had by a landslide since 1994. Dissent has been handled with an iron fist. Fear has been his tool of maintaining power. It is the only country in Europe that still applies the death penalty, and with a bullet to the back of the head.

Lukashenko has played his cards well by manipulating Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has until recently provided low-cost oil, and Western countries, which have gone back and forth with sanctions. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Belarus since 2006, though the U.S. and Belarus recently agreed to improve relations and share ambassadors again. 

Lukashenko may have finally made his first major mistake. Putin has pulled out of providing subsidized oil and Lukashenko bet wrong by claiming there was nothing to fear from coronavirus, resulting in one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in Europe. Belarus is in economic turmoil and the people are hurting, and tired of the past 26 years of dictatorship. The people have been protesting in large numbers for the first time under Lukashenko, and they are being met with severe and intense brutality. Thousands have been arrested and subjected to secret detention, their whereabouts unknown to their families.

One such person is Yuri Vlasov. He is a confidant of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who many believe was the real winner in this past week’s presidential elections in Belarus and who has now fled to Lithuania. Vlasov, the father of one of the many people I met in Belarus, was jailed last year for 45 days as an opposition party member, and was again arrested this past week. His whereabouts and well-being are unknown.

I have shared my concerns with Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, specifically about Yuri Vlasov, but obviously about the underlying crisis in Belarus today. I have also asked my contacts in the Foreign Ministry of Belarus to apprise me of Vlasov’s well-being, with no word yet to come.

America should stand strong against autocratic rule, and our U.S. senators should oppose the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Belarus until Alexander Lukashenko is long gone.

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