WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following opening remarks at this morning’s full Committee hearing on United States policy toward Belarus. Testifying before the Committee were the Honorable Julie Fisher, United States Ambassador-Designate to the Republic of Belarus, U.S. Department of State; Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Leader of the Democratic Opposition in Belarus; and Mr. Jamie Fly, President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

 

“Ultimately, a democratic Belarus is up to its people to determine and to achieve. That is their sovereign responsibility. But the United States has also a responsibility to maintain pressure on the regime, a responsibility to live up to the vision set by the Biden administration,” Chairman Menendez said. “How we respond to Belarus will send a message not only to the regime in Minsk, but to autocrats around the world. This is a critical test, one the United States must pass.”


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“The people of Belarus deserve a chance to live in a democratic society. They have sacrificed greatly – some have paid the ultimate sacrifice and hundreds sit in jail as political prisoners,” Chairman Menendez added. “I hope that this hearing does two things – I hope that it sends a clear message of solidarity to the Belarusian people. Second, and more importantly, I want this hearing to advance real policy options for the United States and our allies in Europe.”

 

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below.

 

“Last week, a Belarusian opposition activist attempted suicide in a Minsk courtroom by stabbing himself in the neck with a pen. Covered in blood, his jailers fumbled for the keys to his courtroom cage. The absolute horror of this one incident exemplifies the desperation of an opposition movement constantly under lethal threat from a regime dead set on staying in power. This is the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenka. This is the harsh brutality faced by the Belarusian people every day.
 
Since attempting to steal the presidential election in August 2020, the Lukashenka regime’s repression has grown exponentially. Hundreds of courageous political prisoners populate Belarusian jails. Several have been killed. Despite this pressure, the people of Belarus continue to turn out, standing up for their rights. 
 
The repressive reach of this regime came into sharp relief three weeks ago when Raman Pratasevich and Sophia Sapega were arrested, victims of a hijacking ordered by the state.
 
The Biden administration has rightfully made support for human rights a centerpiece of its foreign policy. How we respond to Belarus will send a message not only to the regime in Minsk, but to autocrats around the world. This is a critical test, one the United States must pass.
 
The United States will pass this test by leading the international community on human rights and democracy. By leading an international sanctions effort. Leading by clearly, publicly and frequently expressing solidarity with the democratic opposition and the people of Belarus.
 
Ultimately, a democratic Belarus is up to its people to determine and to achieve. That is their sovereign responsibility. But the United States has also a responsibility to maintain pressure on the regime, a responsibility to live up to the vision set by the Biden administration.
 
And that starts by taking a few key steps.
 
First, sanctions. The U.S. re-imposition of sanctions on nine Belarusian entities is a welcome development, but it did little to change Lukashenka’s calculus. Working with Europe, the Administration should impose sanctions on the Belarusian state bank, Belarusian sovereign debt, and the energy and potash industries. It is time to increase the pressure. 
 
Second: We need to stand with the opposition in Belarus. I appreciate that members of our committee, Senators Shaheen, Portman, and Murphy, met with the opposition in Vilnius last week. Lukashenka needs to see over and over that the international community does not see him as legitimate, full stop. To that end, Belarusian opposition leadership should be invited to the G7 summit in the United Kingdom next week. We should never pass up an opportunity to express solidarity with these courageous activists.

Finally, we need to see a robust investigation and a focused set of penalties in response to the hijacking of the May 23rd Ryanair flight. A lackluster response will send a crystal clear signal to autocrats in every corner of the world – it is open season on democratic activists abroad, go ahead, target at will. The Kremlin has already seized the initiative and last week began forcing activists off planes for arrest. Since May 23rd, we have heard a lot of rhetoric, but little action. I welcome the measures to block Belarusian flights into Europe and the EU should consider blocking Belarusian ships from its ports.  A weak response will only welcome continued aggression.

Alexander Lukashenka is often called the last dictator in Europe, but unfortunately, he is not. Vladimir Putin is sitting right next door, constantly exerting pernicious influence across the region. As the Belarusian activist tried to commit suicide in Minsk last week, Putin took Lukashenka out for a yacht cruise on the Black Sea. The Russian leader sees opportunity. So I look forward to hearing from Ambassador Fisher on how the Department assesses this relationship and how we can work to ensure that Putin does not gain further advantage in the region.
 
The people of Belarus deserve a chance to live in a democratic society. They have sacrificed greatly – some have paid the ultimate sacrifice and hundreds sit in jail as political prisoners.  I hope that this hearing does two things – I hope that it sends a clear message of solidarity to the Belarusian people. Second, and more importantly, I want this hearing to advance real policy options for the United States and our allies in Europe.
 
With that, let me recognize the Ranking Member, Senator Risch, for his opening remarks.”
 

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