Congressman Chris Smith: a turning point has come for Alexander Lukashenko’s regime

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) on China

Congressman Chris Smith: a turning point has come for Alexander Lukashenko's regime

The author of the bill in defense of democracy and human rights in Belarus gave an interview to the Russian Service; Voices of America

Republican Congressman Chris Smith has represented New Jersey’s 4th District since 1981. He devoted much of his legislative career to the fight for human rights, becoming the author of the Law to Protect Victims of the Slave Trade and Violence. In response to recent events in Belarus, Smith prepared a bill to protect democracy and sovereignty in Belarus. A bipartisan bill of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee declares Lukashenko’s regime illegal, and also points to the subversive role of the Russian authorities. In an exclusive interview with the Russian service of the Voice of America, the congressman spoke about his vision of the development of the situation in Belarus, as well as the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Daria Dieguts: You have prepared a bill to protect democracy and human rights in Belarus. What provisions are laid down in this document?

Chris Smith: This is the fourth bill I have prepared. The first was the 2004 Law on Democracy in Belarus, which introduced a regime of sanctions against people like Lukashenka and his entourage. In addition to economic constraints, sanctioned individuals were unable to obtain (American) visas. Subsequently, this legislation became a model for the Magnitsky Act.

The current draft law is even stronger and more comprehensive, it contains new provisions, including a strategy to support the activities of Voice of America, Radio Liberty and other independent media in order to bring the truth to the people of Belarus. With this document, we recognize the Opposition Coordination Council as a legitimate mediator in the transfer of power. We also point out that the elections were not free and fair. Also in the bill, we examine the personal state of Lukashenka and the sources of his capital accumulation. We know that dictators all over the world make fortunes to the detriment of their peoples. Well we want to figure it out.

We hope this will lead to decisive action. The (Trump) administration and Secretary of State Pompeo pay a lot of attention to Belarus, as do our European partners. We support the great people of Belarus, they deserve democracy, they shed blood for it.

As you know, according to one estimate, more than 10 thousand people were detained at the protests. The perpetrators of this need to be held accountable – the corresponding provision is also contained in this bill. And, of course, visa bans and restrictions on international economic activity will be introduced.

DD: The EU states have made a decision to impose sanctions against a group of Belarusian officials, a similar decision followed from the US Treasury Department. How effective are these measures?

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C.S .: A turning point has now come for Lukashenka. When we passed the law in 2004, and then all subsequent laws, it did release some (political) prisoners. And it lulls the vigilance of the international community.

But the catastrophic events of August 9, for which Lukashenka bears full responsibility, is a straw that broke the camel’s back. We must unite now, and I am glad that the EU and the United States share the same views on this issue. The UN must do more. Svetlana (Tikhanovskaya) made a direct appeal to this organization.

I was shocked by the huge role women play in the struggle for democracy in Belarus. This has happened before, but now – especially.

Some women at the rallies took off their masks from the police to see who these people were. We need names (of those who brutally suppressed the protests). When we impose sanctions, the more names the better. And this time we will not back down! I never backed down, some of my colleagues – both Democrats and Republicans – never backed down, but over time, a certain fatigue appeared. Dictatorships are counting on this.

This will not happen this time. We are focused on Belarus. We are also concerned that Putin and Moscow may take steps to incorporate Belarus into Russia. If they do this – and this is spelled out in the bill – we will never recognize this and will do our best to fight back. People of Belarus deserve better than Lukashenka.

D.D .: US citizen Vitaly Shklyarov has been in the Minsk remand prison for two months. What can the American government do to free him?

C.S .: When an American citizen is detained, the US government has a special responsibility to take steps to secure his release. But even when a Voice of America reporter who is a citizen of another country is arrested in places like Baku, we are responsible for it. I think that the responsibility is people and human rights, not nationality. We care about all people and we care about Belarusians.

In Belarus, the people are fighting for democracy, we must support them. Sometimes people ask me: why are Americans so worried about this? – Because different nationalities and diasporas are represented here, we are a country of all countries. Not in my district, but in New Jersey, there are many Belarusians. We are a nation of refugees and immigrants, and I think that’s why we can speak on behalf of all these wonderful people

DD: The last week was marked by the aggravation of the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Democratic senators called on the State Department to take measures to de-escalate the situation, as well as to stop military assistance to Azerbaijan. Why was Azerbaijan mentioned in this case? Does this mean that there is data indicating that it is Baku that is behind the escalation of the conflict??

C.S .: There is ample evidence. More investigation is needed, especially in relation to the fighters that were allegedly used (in this conflict) – I think they were Turkish fighters. There is also information about the appearance of several thousand jihadists in the conflict zone. These things don’t happen by accident. We believe that Turkey plays a negative role in all this. I think Azerbaijan believes that it has military superiority. The answer must be decisive.

It is necessary to stop the fighting and consider ending funding (of the Azerbaijani armed forces). We also need to rethink our relationship with Turkey..

Erdogan and Turkey have gone in the wrong direction. At the hearings in the Congress, the issue of adopting a resolution on the Armenian Genocide was discussed. I will never forget that the Turkish diplomat threatened to deprive us of the base in Incirlik if we pass a resolution, recognizing what everyone already knows: the Armenian genocide took place.

Turkey is now playing the first violin in providing military assistance to Azerbaijan. We urge: stop and stop killing! First of all, stop killing. NATO members should not behave like that. Dot! We need to go to a ceasefire, then tackle this problem. This is no longer a frozen conflict.

(Turkey has repeatedly stated that if asked, it will come to Azerbaijan’s aid, but so far there is no evidence that Turkey is actively involved in the conflict. Ankara has stated that Azerbaijan is capable of fighting without Turkey’s support – ed.)

DD: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a nerve poison, which, it is believed, can only be at the disposal of the Russian authorities. What can be done to make the Kremlin accountable for these actions?

K. S .: We have the Magnitsky Law, which has been used against a number of Russian officials. And we must try to find the culprit (of the poisoning). In a country that more and more resembles a dictatorship, it is very difficult to understand this. But the available evidence seems very convincing, especially since this is not the first case.

  • Daria Dieguts

    International journalist. Focus – USA, Ukraine, Russia. She worked on Ukrainian TV channels and in the Washington bureau of RTVi. Since 2017 – on the Voice of America

    [email protected]

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