Authorities in Belarus are stepping up their efforts to crack down on protests. It's been a month since protestors began demanding the ouster of longtime president Alexander Lukashenko. They say last month's election was rigged and that Lukashenko needs to go.
The movement has been led by people like Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova. Today, witnesses in Minsk say she was snatched off the street by unidentified masked men, then thrown into a minibus and driven away. Police have denied detaining her.
It's the latest incident in a month that has redefined Belarus. But how has the international community responded to all the upheaval?
Linas Linkevicius, the Lithuanian minister of foreign affairs, has been one of the most vocal world leaders speaking up against Alexander Lukashenko. He spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about the protests and upheaval in neighboring Belarus.
Marco Werman: You tweeted today saying that Kolesnikova’s abduction is a “Stalinist NKVD method,” referring to the Soviet Union’s secret police. Mr. Foreign Minister, what do you think this kidnapping means for the opposition movement?
Linas Linkevicius: Yeah, I believe it's not just for the opposition, to everyone, because the outgoing authorities, they changed tactics instead of massive brutality, they are doing that ad hoc and case-by-case and trying to intimidate, first of all, [the] members of coordination council, because this council, they need to create kind of a platform for democratic process and new elections. I believe it's really not too much. And now we can see that we, just maybe a few members, maybe two, to be precise, [are] left in freedom, so to say. And others [have] either left the country temporarily, or they were forced to flee as Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, or something as it is now with [Maria] Kolesnikova. So we definitely see that the signals are quite clear that the opposition must calm down. Otherwise, they will be put into custody. And that's the plan. So to calm down [the] situation, as it was always the case, they did that before many times. And now [they’re] trying to repeat [it].
You mentioned Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. She was the opposition candidate who presented her candidacy against Alexander Lukashenko. She's now in refuge in your country. Was she threatened by Belarusian authorities? What did you actually do to help?
Yes, indeed. She was blackmailed. And we tried to reach her when she was still in Belarus, when she visited the electoral committee and submitting kind of [an] appeal to recount the votes. And she also disappeared and then we understood that she was provided not too many options. One option was to flee the country. ... and ... she already had [a] Lithuanian national visa, same as many others who potentially could be exposed to this danger. So, she decided to go to Lithuania. And authorities didn't prevent that, [they] even helped her to leave. And she [is] in Lithuania. So, the only kind of assistance by Lithuania is to provide this refuge or security. And she's acting on her own, making statements — now communicating much more than at the beginning — and meeting leaders, traveling a bit.
Have you been able to speak with her yourself?
Yeah, I talked to her at the beginning. She was devastated, I have to say, and even depressed. And she initially was not able even to say anything, because we have to understand her husband is still in custody and we can assume what kind of treatment he's ... undergoing. And I'm afraid that she is really blackmailed.
It's been four weeks of protests now in Belarus. Mr. Foreign Minister, you've been very vocal throughout from your position in Lithuania. What is at stake for Belarus right now? How big is the concern of those sponsors in Russia ... coming into Minsk and helping straighten things out?
Yeah, now it's kind of on pause. You know, everybody [is] waiting a bit [to see] what will happen next. So people on the streets are still peaceful. Massive movements every weekend. Enormous number of people, which [were] never [seen] before. And they are not scared. It's surprising, by the way, because despite all these intimidations, torturing and humiliations, they are still very active. And this is their very strong argument. In Belarus, Belarusian outgoing authorities still believe they can save time, inventing some mechanisms like constitutional reform and trying to calm down and intimidate these people. And sponsors in Moscow, also, they believe that ... they probably have many options and all these options are bad for them. But they decided to choose the support of this compromised leadership, which is, I believe, quite detrimental for themselves, as well.
So, now this is the situation, and therefore, we need really to come up with a very clear international message of support to the people of Belarus, not just a message of moral support, but also to help these victims of repressions, to find a way how to help them free media, civil society. Also, a message to the outgoing leadership that they are definitely outgoing and their mandate is expired.
It's also very important to note — if they will try to pretend that they are elected, it's not true. And also a message to Russia: They must refrain from meddling in the domestic affairs of Belarus, because unfortunately, sadly, I would predict that they now will speed up this so-called integration process of [a] union of [the] two states and not much will remain from the sovereignty and independence of Belarus.
You're just to the north of Belarus, there in Lithuania. Does Lithuania worry about Russian aggression inside its own borders?
Not now. In general, we definitely worry about instability in the neighborhood. And we are members of very serious and important organizations like NATO, the European Union. So our stations are quite different. And by the way, all these rhetorics about external threats to Belarus is fake. And that was denied many times by NATO leaders, by all the others. So, we can repeat it's definitely groundless. So, maybe they would like to prove [that] this calls for assistance from Russia, even military assistance. But there is no reason — military, moral or legal reasons — for that assistance. But since it's publicly discussed, this is kind of dangerous. And who can deny that possibility? So, now we are looking at that very carefully. We are vigilant and this instability creates a kind of tension and concern. So that's something we should look at very seriously, carefully. So our situation is, as I said, different, but those who are more vulnerable in the neighborhood, they are really suffering.
The US has been parceling out careful responses on the situation in Belarus. A few statements here and there from Secretary [Mike] Pompeo on the importance of respecting democracy, but nothing from [Donald] Trump. Do you have a message for US leadership and President Trump, in particular, when it comes to their position on Belarus?
Well, frankly, the US will decide themselves what they have to state and when and how, but definitely we will expect leadership by the States on whatever happens in the world. Especially, we would like to see this leadership in the area of human rights, freedom ... and that's something that I believe will take place. So, I hope it will happen. It's happening. I know that Stephen Biegun, deputy secretary of state, visited Belarus, and also provided very clear messages. So I believe a strong voice, a consistent position by the United States, could also influence the situation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.