U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher talks with opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius on April 21.
The new U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, has met with exiled opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, just ahead of talks between authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The meeting took place on April 21 in Vilnius, the capital of neighboring Lithuania, where former presidential candidate Tsikhanouskaya moved under pressure from the Belarusian authorities shortly after Lukashenka claimed victory in a widely disputed presidential election in August 2020.
Fisher met with Tsikhanouskaya on the eve of the meeting between Putin and Lukashenka in Moscow, during which the two are expected to discuss further deepening the ties between the countries.
"Today’s action sends a clear signal that the U.S. stands with the Belarusian people," said Fisher, who in December was appointed the first U.S. envoy to Belarus since 2008, but has yet to present her credentials in Minsk.
"As U.S. ambassador to Belarus, my priority is to embody that support."
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
However, State Department spokesman Ned Price said later on April 21 that Fisher wouldn’t take her position in the country under current conditions.
"Being able to return an ambassador to Minsk would send a powerful signal. But as long as what we have seen in Belarus continues, the human rights violations, the repression, there can be no business as usual," Price said.
Fisher said at her meeting with Tsikhanouskaya that "it is important that the international community speak up and speak out about what’s happening, that we pay close attention, and that we call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Belarus."
Tsikhanouskaya said Belarus should retain its independence and sovereignty.
"I want to see Belarus independent, free, and building friendly and mutually beneficial relations with all countries, first and foremost with our neighbors, but with other ones, too," Tsikhanouskaya said.
Since the August election, which Tsikhanouskaya’s supporters say she won, Belarus has seen unprecedented protests and political turmoil, with opposition groups claiming the vote was stolen by Lukashenka, who has run the country with an iron fist since 1994.
Security forces have arrested more than 34,000 people in a crackdown that has led to accusations of beatings and other rights abuses against demonstrators.
The West has refused to accept Lukashenka’s victory, and few countries aside from Russia acknowledge him as president of Belarus.
Most prominent opposition leaders — including Tsikhanouskaya — have left the country.
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions against individuals and companies tied to Lukashenka’s regime.
Earlier this week, Washington reimposed sanctions on nine state-owned companies, a move expected to deliver a crippling blow to Belarus’s declining economy.
With reporting by AP and Reuters