Back in April, former Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer cowrote a piece for FP with Belarusian dissident Irina Krasovskaya, criticizing European attempts to normalize relations with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
With today's news that Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon is traveling to Minsk to meet with Lukashenko, I called Kramer to ask for his take. He said that while he understands the desire to negotiate, he's puzzled by the timing:
I’m not quite sure what the rush is. I'm not sure what Phil is going there to discuss, other than the way forward.... Lukashenko already knows what the way forward is. First and foremost he has to restore the U.S. embassy and allow an ambassador back.
We imposed sanctions because of Lukashenko's treatment of his own people. We didn't impose sanctions because of what they did to our embassy. We lifted some of the sanctions after the release of political prisoners but now there are new political prisoners. The treatment of political opponents really hasn't gotten much better this year. So I'm not sure why we're going unless Lukashenko demonstrates that he is going to ease up on oppression. I'm not saying we should have no contact. But an assistant secretary trip to Minsk is a pretty big deal and I would have liked to have gotten something before it happened.
I asked Kramer what advice he would have for Gordon:
He should take a pretty firm stand. I sure as hell hope that there won't be any apologies for U.S. policy in the past. Having been closely involved in it, I'm a firm believer that U.S. policy on Belarus was right on the mark. Lukashenko understands tough lines. It's really the only language he speaks. We need to be firm with him. If we demonstrate the we're more interested in easing up on our policy and improving relations than he is in liberalizing his policy toward his own people, he's going to outplay us. He's a master at playing the U.S. and Russia off of each other.
Phil should take a firm line and say here are the the things you need to do: release thes new political prisoners, allow opposition to operate without any restrictions,allow development of independent media and NGO development. But the top of his list should be restoring our embassy. We don't have much else to talk about until that happens.