KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — New United States ambassador to Belarus Julie Fisher met with the country’s exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, in neighboring Lithuania’s capital on Wednesday.
The meeting took place in Vilnius, where Tsikhanouskaya moved under pressure from the Belarusian authorities in August, shortly after authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko defeated her in a widely disputed presidential election.
Official results of the elections handed Lukashenko, who has run Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, his sixth term in office and triggered the largest and the most sustained wave of protests in the ex-Soviet nation’s history. Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters refused to recognize the results, arguing they were manipulated.
Julie Fisher, who in December was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since 2008, met with Tsikhanouskaya on the eve of Lukashenko’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two are expected to discuss further deepening the ties between the countries on Thursday in Moscow.
“Today’s action sends a clear signal that the U.S. stands with the Belarusian people,” Fisher, who has yet to present her credentials in Minsk, said. “As U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, my priority is to embody that support.”
But State Department spokesman Ned Price said later Wednesday that Fisher won’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.”
Belarus has become a target of Western sanctions after Lukashenko unleashed a harsh crackdown on the mass protests demanding his resignation. More than 34,000 people have been arrested, many of them beaten, and most prominent opposition figures have fled Belarus or been jailed.
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 underscored that 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.
Earlier this week, the U.S. re-imposed sanctions on nine state-owned companies in Belarus, a move expected to deliver a crippling blow to the country’s declining economy.