President Joe Biden met with exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Wednesday morning, as she tours the U.S. as part of a campaign to ratchet up international pressure on the authoritarian Lukashenko regime.
Their encounter was not advertised in advance as officials tried to balance supporting a democracy campaigner without riling President Putin of Russia.
‘I was honored to meet with @Tsihanouskaya at the White House this morning. The United States stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for democracy and universal human rights,’ Biden tweeted, with a photo of the two in conversation.
For her part, Tikhanovskaya, 38, thanked the president for his ‘powerful sign of solidarity with millions of fearless Belarusians who are peacefully fighting for their freedom.’
President Biden met Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Wednesday morning. Officials claimed he dropped by her meeting with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan but experts said that was a subterfuge to allow ‘plausible deniability’
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. His security forces launched a crackdown after protests erupted last year following disputed elections
Months of protests rocked Belarus after Lukashenko’s claim of victory for a sixth term in the August 2020 election, a vote that the West denounced as neither free nor fair
Protesters have been demanding the resignation of Lukashenko following what many believe was a rigged election. They have rallied behind an old Belarusian national flag
She has been in the U.S. for two weeks, conducting a string of media interviews and meetings with key administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, head of USAID Samantha Power, and Kelu Chao, the acting head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
She wants backing for her campaign against Alexander Lukashenko. The strongman has kept a grip on Belarus since 1994, cracking down on peaceful protests that erupted in the wake of a dispute election last year.
The White House did not announce a meeting with Biden in advance and it did not appear on the press office daily guidance for Wednesday, as is customary when the president is meeting foreign figures.
A senior administration official told Reuters that Tsikhanouskaya was meeting for a second time with Sullivan when Biden dropped by briefly. It was an opportunity for the U.S. president to express his support for the people of Belarus in person, the official said.
But the ‘pop in’ would have subject to the same planning as any other meeting and all signed off by Biden’s National Security Council, according to Brett Bruen, former global engagement director at the White House. It would then have been camouflaged to avoid angering Lukashenko’s key ally in Moscow.
‘It gives the administration plausible deniability that this was a “meeting,”‘ he said.
‘It’s orchestrated just like any other meeting but they can don’t want to piss off Putin, so its designed so they can say to the Russians well, she didn’t have a meeting with the president, he just popped in.’
Afterwards, Tikhanovskaya said the meeting had been short but cordial.
Speaking after the meeting with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, Tsikhanouskaya said her talks with Biden had been brief but cordial.
The White House shared no images or statements or video of the meeting, other than a single photograph and message posted to social media
Belarus exploded on to the front pages when Ryanair flight FR4978, flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania, when it was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid fake reports of an IED on board. It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk Airport, where authorities arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich
‘As President Biden’s schedule is busy, we did not spend much time together – about 15 minutes – but it was a very warm meeting,’ she told Current Time, a Russian language network set up by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
She said she was leaving the White House with confidence that the U.S. would stand by the people of Belarus.
‘I saw a person who is not indifferent,’ she said. ‘He is not indifferent to what is happening in Belarus.
‘I brought to the president our messages: that the fight in Belarus is not geopolitical — it is our fight against violence and lawlessness; that our values are the same.’
Tsikhanouskaya, 38, stood in the election in place of her husband, a video blogger who was jailed on charges of violating public order.
The West does not recognize the results of the election or view Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
The United Nations says more than 35,000 people have been detained and tens of thousands have fled overseas, including Tsikhanouskaya.
The human rights organization Viasna counts 577 political prisoners detained amid the protests.
The tensions made global headlines in May, when a European plane flying through Belarus’ airspace was diverted and forced to land in the capital Minsk, where a prominent dissident Roman Protasevich was arrested.
In June, the U. S., the European Union and Britain imposed sweeping sanctions on Belarusian entities and officials, and called on Minsk to end ‘repressive practises against its own people.’