Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun Special Briefing with the Brussels Hub

Special Briefing via Telephone
Stephen Biegun
Deputy Secretary of State
September 11, 2020
The Brussels Hub

Moderator:  Good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s Brussels Media Hub.  I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun.  Deputy Secretary Biegun will discuss the U.S. response to the ongoing situation in Belarus.  We will begin with opening remarks from the Deputy Secretary and then we will turn to your questions.  We will do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes.

As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.  And with that, I will turn it over to Deputy Secretary Biegun.  Please go ahead.

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Justin, thank you very much, and good afternoon to those of you in Europe who are joining us, or here in the United States, good morning.  I’d like to say a few things and I’m more than happy to answer any questions you have.

As I think is known by most who cover this issue, Secretary of State Pompeo has asked me to play a lead role in advancing our plans, our policies on – in regard to the events that are playing out in Belarus.  Like many in Europe, and also especially the Belarusian people themselves, the United States wants to see a sovereign, independent, successful Belarus in which the Belarusian people themselves have the right to choose their own future.  We commend the unwavering courage of the protesters who we’ve seen on the streets of Belarus, peacefully asserting their right to choose their own leaders in a free and fair election and not subject to unjustified violence or repression by their own ruler.

The abuses and brutal violence that we’ve seen against the peaceful protesters over the past month must end.  All unjustly detained, including the U.S. citizen Vitali Shkliarov, who continues to be held, must be released.  It’s alarming and deeply troubling for us to see the continued reports of politically motivated detentions and the forced deportations and kidnapping of Coordination Council members that we saw just a few days ago.  Belarusian authorities have a responsibility to ensure the full safety of Ms. Kalesnikava, Mr. Shkliarov, and all others who are unjustly detained.

We believe that the Belarusian people must be able to determine their own path free from outside interference or threats, including from powerful neighbors.  U.S. support for the Belarusian people and our support for productive dialogue between the regime and the Coordinating Council does not mean we are asking Belarus to choose between East and West.  This is not a contest between the United States and Russia.  This is a battle between a ruler and the people that he purports to rule.

The Belarusian regime is not working for the best interests of the Belarusian people.  The regime has used ill-gotten wealth to amass and maintain power, through a level of corruption that is all too apparent to those living inside Belarus, not to mention to the rest of the world.  And now, after being clearly rejected by his own people, the ruler of Belarus is using violence to maintain his grip on power and relying upon – increasingly upon support from Moscow to prop him up.

Most Belarusians have seen Russia as the country closest to their hearts, and we respect that sentiment and sovereign choice.  It thus eludes us how Moscow can back such a regime and such violence against peaceful citizens exercising constitutionally protected rights to freedom of assembly, association, and speech.  If the Kremlin continues down this path, it risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow.  Even more confusing is the reality that ordinary Russian citizens are also being sucked up by Belarusian authorities as part of the crackdown and subject to the same brutal violence.  Why would Moscow support such a regime?  We can see that the Russian people clearly do not.  And as Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said earlier this week, we urge the people of Russia to resist Kremlin-generated disinformation about the protest movement and support the Belarusian people in their desire for justice and free elections.

And that brings me to a final important point.  Repeated reports suggest that Belarusian authorities have harassed, beaten, and arrested journalists and other media workers who are covering the election and the ongoing protests.  Coupled with the use of internet shutdowns, they have laid bare their blatant desire to suppress the exercise of free speech and to limit access of information to their own people.

So where do we go from here?  As both Secretary of State Pompeo and I have previously noted, we are closely coordinating with partners and allies on the next steps.  This includes sanctions, and I want to be absolutely clear: The United States continues current sanctions on 16 individuals, including the ruler of Belarus and other high-level officials, and in addition we are closely coordinating with our European partners on targeted additional sanctions to promote accountability for those involved in human rights abuses and repression in Belarus.  We also call upon Belarusian authorities to immediately accept the offer of the OSCE chair-in-office to facilitate a dialogue with the Coordinating Council.

Just a couple weeks ago I had the opportunity of meeting Ms. Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius.  I’d like to close my remarks before taking a few questions by echoing her three recent demands: truly free and fair presidential elections; the release of all political prisoners; and the investigation of the authorities’ crimes against the people of Belarus.  We share Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s vision for Belarus’s future and we stand by our long-term commitment to support the sovereignty of Belarus as well as its territorial integrity, as the aspirations of the Belarusian people to determine their own path remains in front of us.

Thank you very much and I’d be prepared to answer any questions, Justin

Moderator:  Thank you very much for those remarks.  We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.  Our first question comes to us from Danila Galperovich with Voice of America.  Please go ahead.

Question:  Good morning, I hope you hear me well.  Thank you very much for doing this.  My question is for the last year, contacts between the United States and Belarus were more or less well-established and we saw Mr. Kravchenko ultimately in Washington, and it was already planned that there will be exchange of ambassadors again.  Do I understand correct that the whole procedure with ambassadors is now canceled?  Thank you very much.

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Thank you, Danila.  The United States has no animosity towards the people of Belarus at all, and in fact, dating back to the very beginning of Belarusian independence in 1991, the United States has sought wherever possible to maintain close relations and cooperation with the people of Belarus, and that remains the same today and is very much why we are giving such voice of support to the Belarusian people.  As far as our ambassador goes, we have an excellent candidate who has been selected by the President by the name of Julie Fisher.  Julie is still in the approval process here inside the United States, and we have not suspended that process.  We believe it’s very important for the United States to have a representative in Belarus that can give a voice to the policies of the United States of America and strongly represent the values and interests that we believe are important to address in our relations with Belarus.  I have noted with great encouragement the presence of several of our partners’ ambassadors in standing side by side with brave members of the Coordinating Council, like Svetlana Alexievich, and I very much look forward to having a United States ambassador standing side by side with her colleagues in Belarus in defense of the Belarusian people.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that.  Our next question comes to us from Nick Schifrin with PBS.  Please go ahead.

Question:  Hey, Steve, thanks for doing this.  You mentioned, the Secretary mentioned sanctions.  Do you care to describe that in any more detail?  One of the sanctions that could be lifted easily are those that were – sorry, that could be reimposed easily are those that were lifted after a waiver in 2015.  You could do that easily.  Is that something you’re considering?  And an overall question about Europe: The EU, as you know, is struggling to maintain unity on Belarus because of divisions over the Eastern Mediterranean.  Does that hamper a unified response?  Thanks.

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Yeah, thank you, Nick.  Thanks.  As far as sanctions go, let me first say that we’re coordinating very closely with our European partners, and as we identify the appropriate targets, we will – we will seek in every possible way to act in concert with our partners in Europe to make a clear statement and also a clear response to those who are perpetrating the violence or who are responsible for the theft of the election on August 9th.

The United States currently has 16 individuals under sanctions, including the ruler of Belarus, as I said.  And we’ve never lifted those sanctions.  In fact, they’ve been in place for a number of years.  Our European partners are reinstituting sanctions that they had lifted in an attempt to draw Belarus into a closer relationship and perhaps moderate the behavior of the current ruler of Belarus.  But in addition to those 16 individuals, we and the European Union are exchanging information on a number of other names that we will be prepared to announce in the very near future.

Separate from these targeted individual sanctions, the United States does have also a number of sanctions against enterprises, some of which have a limited licensing ability for very specific purposes.  We definitely will be reviewing the entire range of sanctions, including the existing sanctions and some of the general licenses that are – have been put in place over the past few years.  We will be announcing all of our steps on sanctions in the very near future, and you’ll see then the ultimate decisions we’re going to make.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that answer, sir.  We’re going to take a question that was submitted to us in advance.  This is from Marcin Wrona with TVN Poland.  Her question is, “What are the effective ways of helping the opposition in Belarus?  In the case of Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s it was international support, sanctions, and funding of the opposition.  Is this scenario possible here 40 years later?”

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Yeah, I want to be very careful to say that first and foremost, the United States is going to fully respect the sovereignty of all the Belarusian people.  We’re not seeking to steer the opposition.  We’re not seeking to control the opposition.  And in fact, we don’t and it’s not ours to do.  When I met with Ms. Tsikhanouskaya in Vilnius just a couple of weeks ago, she very specifically asked that the United States, and all other countries as well, respect the sovereignty of Belarus, and that’s our intention.  Of course, we remain in contact with the breadth of Belarusian society, including members of the Coordinating Council as well as those who inside and outside of Belarus are seeking to support the voice of the Belarusian people and the demands of the Belarusian people.

The United States, we’ll certainly use our international influence to create necessary space for the Belarusian people to achieve their ambitions for a free and fair election under independent observation.  We’ll do that by engaging with friends and countries with whom we don’t always cooperate.  I had a very important meeting just a week and a half ago where we visited Moscow with a delegation to have deep and substantive talks on the issues related to Belarus.  At the time, my sense was that the Russian Government itself was looking for a constructive way forward, and it’s why I find it so disturbing to see increasing signs of overt Russian support to prop up the current regime in Belarus.  But also we’ll be working through international organizations like the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has stood up very quickly a troika of the chairman-in-office willing to travel to Minsk to meet with both the government and the opposition to facilitate the dialogue that is going to be necessary in order to allow Belarus to move forward to a better future.

We will use our – the tools we have for leverage inside Belarus, including the sanctions that I mentioned a moment ago, to make clear that those who are subjecting their people to brutal violence or who are responsible for the theft of the election will face consequences even if they live inside a system that currently delivers impunity to them.

So we will be using our influence in every way possible, carefully respecting the will of the Belarusian people themselves, and respecting the independence and the true voice of the Belarusian people that we see demonstrated in Ms. Tsikhanouskaya and the Coordinating Council.

Moderator:  Thanks very much.  Our next question comes to us from John Hudson with The Washington Post.  Please go ahead.

Question:  [Inaudible] very much, Steve, for doing this.  I’m wondering, why do you think we haven’t seen much messaging on Belarus or Navalny from the President?  And is there concern by the President that being more vocal will jeopardize the New START talks which he had mentioned on Friday?

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Nobody in the United States is linking our positions on either the theft of the elections and the brutal violence in Belarus nor the tragic poisoning of Alexei Navalny to any other – any other matters, New START or negotiations or anything else.  In fact, the New START negotiations continue and if we are successful in achieving a new agreement, it will be based upon such a negotiation delivering an outcome that respects the interests of the United States of America, and I am sure from the Russian side they would say the same.

As far as the President’s comments, the President has in fact made comments on both of these issues, recognizing the tragic poisoning of Navalny and calling upon our German allies to consider this as the appropriate moment to suspend the completion of the Nord Stream 2 project that will only increase the dependency of Western Europe on Russian energy and reward the very economic interests that are responsible for much of the challenge that we face in U.S.-Russia relations around the world.

As far as Belarus, the President and the Secretary of State have both spoken out on this issue, and in fact the Secretary has designated and delegated to me the responsibility to play a leading role at a very senior level to ensure that the United States is actively engaged in this issue.  He sent me to Europe just a couple of days after the election.  It was an incredibly important and productive visit, not only to talk to the Belarusian opposition but to have a candid discussion with our counterparts in Moscow and also to work closely with our friends and allies in the OSCE in order to generate a proposal which offers a way out for the Belarusian ruler and allows the international community to use its influence to push for a peaceful conclusion to this dispute.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Our next question comes to us from Dmitry Kirsanov with the TASS News Agency.

Question:  Hello, can you hear me?

Moderator:  Yes.

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Yes, I can.

Question:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.  Good morning and thank you so much for doing the call.  The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE said last week in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine that the U.S. should try to persuade Lukashenko that he cannot be the president of Belarus under these circumstances.  Is this the U.S. administration’s position or some freewheeling diplomacy?  Who do you now recognize as the leader in Belarus, and judging by your comments, do you want to see a rerun?  And by the same token, was Mr. Gilmore speaking for the administration and the State Department when he blasted an open letter written recently by a large group of prominent Russia hands, including Thomas Pickering, Thomas Graham, Rose Gottemoeller, and dozens of others?  They were calling for the rethinking of the U.S.-Russia policy.  Do you believe it really was a, quote/unquote, “shameful document,” as Ambassador Gilmore put it?

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  So thank you, Dmitry.  In regard to your first question, the United States believes – and it’s not simply our belief but it’s also guaranteed to the Belarusian people by the Helsinki Final Act and the OSCE charter document, as well as by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations – the Belarusian people are entitled to a free and fair election in which they choose their own leaders, and they were denied that opportunity on August 9th.  There is no legitimacy delivered to the ruler of Belarus by the August 9th election.  The Belarusian people deserve and demand the opportunity to hold such an election under independent observation, and the United States strongly supports their desire to do so.

As far as the U.S.-Russia relationship and the – and differing views across the spectrum of nongovernment individuals regarding the appropriate course with Russia, I can only say that those of us in government have the responsibility to deal with the critical issues in front of us, and on matters like the tragic poisoning of Alexei Navalny or on ensuring a peaceful outcome in Belarus that gives the Belarusian people their entitled right to have a free and fair election, we do need to talk to the Russian Government about these issues because they are as much in the interest of Russia as the United States, and in the case of Navalny’s poisoning, the burden of an investigation falls entirely upon the shoulders of the Russian Government, which needs to respond with far more urgency to the use of a banned nerve agent – a chemical weapon on the territory of the Russian Federation – against a Russian citizen.  It is unbelievable to us that this would happen on the territory of any country and the government would not react with the appropriate urgency to investigate and hold accountable those who committed the crime.

And so in our relations with Belarus we will continue – in our – excuse me, in our relations with Russia we will continue to engage and we will continue to have an honest dialogue and exchange of the views of the two countries.  I think that’s the appropriate responsibilities of our diplomats in the Department of State, and it is our intention to continue to do so.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that.  Our next question comes to us from Arshad Mohammad with the Reuters News Agency.  Please go ahead.

Question:  Good morning.  Am I correct in understanding that the United States does not intend to impose additional sanctions on Belarusian figures for the election fraud and violence until it can do so in concert with the European Union?  Second, is the U.S. Government considering the possibility of imposing sanctions on Russia for what you just described as its increasingly overt interference in events in Belarus?  And finally, as I’m sure you’re aware, Lukashenko is to meet with Russian President Putin in Sochi on Monday.  Is – would you like to see that meeting canceled?  Is that the kind of Russian involvement that you feel is deleterious to a resolution of events in Belarus?

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Thank you, Arshad.  On your first question, the United States and the EU are not linking their efforts on sanctions; we’re coordinating, and neither would be held up by the other.  The reality of targeted sanctions against specific individuals is that a certain amount of investigative work and documentation needs to take place in order to be able to effectively implement the sanctions.  We are actively doing that in coordination with the United States Department of Treasury, who has the lead on sanctions implementation here in the United States, and I expect in just a few short days we will be in a position to be able to definitively identify the additional list of sanctions that we will be imposing in parallel with those that are being enacted by the European Union.

I don’t speak for the European Union or for the European Commission, but I know they too have their evidentiary process that they need to complete before the final designation of sanctions, and we’re working closely in cooperation with them to ensure that both of us are prepared in the near future [inaudible].

Participant:  Yeah.

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  As far as sanctions on Russia goes, we are not – we are not – I am not at this point going to forecast any specific actions the United States will take in relation to the challenges we have with Russia.  The reality is that a substantial amount of the commerce between the United States and the Russian Federation is already covered by broad and sweeping sanctions dating back to approximately five years, six years ago, when most of these sanctions were enacted, and those remain in place today.

Regarding the visit on Monday between Presidents Putin – President Putin and the ruler of Belarus, I would only say that it would be our hope that the Russian Government gives full voice to the concerns that all of us share regarding the brutality on the streets of Minsk that we have seen play out in front of us.  I would hope that the president of Russia raises the concerns that we raise about the unjust detention of so many Belarusian people, and also the brutal violence that’s been used against Russian citizens, and especially Russian journalists, by the regime in Belarus.  Of course, ultimately, we hope the message from Moscow to Minsk is that the ruler needs to give way to the will of his people.  A free and fair election will allow the Belarusian people to select who will be the next president of Belarus, and we strongly support their wish to do so, and we very much hope and expect that the Russian president will convey the same message that the regime in Belarus is hearing from so many other nations around the world.

Moderator:  Thank you very much for that.  We have time for one last question, and that will go to Iurii Sheiko with – let’s see, in Germany.  Please go ahead, Iurii.

Question:  Hello, do you hear me?

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  I can hear you.

Question:  Yeah, so it’s Iurii Sheiko from Deutsche Welle.  So I have a question, additional question on sanctions.  You spoke about personal sanctions against officials.  So do you consider economic sanctions on Belarus to convince Belarusian authorities to change their policies, or you do not consider these sanctions?  Thank you very much.

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Iurii, in our initial plans, we are looking at targeted sanctions aimed at the individuals who are most responsible for the circumstances, both the violence as well as the theft of the election.  The message will be very clear to them that their assets and their freedom to travel will be affected by the conduct that they – how they comport themselves at this moment in relation to their own people.  It is just unbelievable to me, as an American citizen, to see that level of violence imposed by Belarusian authorities against their own people, and I know it has shocked many Russians and many others in Europe as well to see that.  That behavior will not be treated with impunity by us or our European partners.

As far as sectoral sanctions or enterprise sanctions, I suppose that as events play out it’s possible that additional measures would be considered, but we also are mindful that the people of Belarus need to work and need to earn a wage and need to live.  We certainly, of course, support and admire the courage of those who have chosen to lay down their tools or walk away from their machinery in the factories and in the shops of Belarus.  It’s a clear statement that the Belarusian opposition is united across all strata of Belarusian society.  But we do not also want to impose upon the citizens of Belarus any additional punitive measures unless absolutely necessary in support of the goals that we’re seeking in Belarus.

I will say that, as I said at the beginning, the United States has no animosity towards the people of Belarus, and we want to find a way to tailor our policies to best protect their interests, the stuff that is sorely lacking in the policies of their own government, unfortunately.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Thanks very much.  Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for today.  Deputy Secretary Biegun, do you have any closing words you’d like to remark or you’d like to offer?

Deputy Secretary Biegun:  Thank you very much.  I’m all set.  Thank you.

Moderator:  Great.  I’d like to thank Deputy Secretary Biegun for joining us today, and also thank all the journalists on the line for joining us with your questions.


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