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Ranking Member Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on U.S. Policy on Belarus

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave the following opening remarks at a full committee hearing on U.S. Policy on Belarus. The committee heard witness testimony from the honorable Julie Fisher, United States ambassador-designate to the Republic of Belarus, Ms. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Democratic Opposition in Belarus, and Mr. Jamie Fly, president and CEO, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

“Last year, on August 9, the Belarusian election was stolen from its people. Alexander Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, has reacted violently to challengers.

“Despite brutal repression, the citizens of Belarus have spent the past year peacefully protesting the authoritarian regime in an effort to restore the proper results of the election.

“The United States has followed the events in Belarus closely, and has worked to support those who stand for freedom and democracy. We have imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials who are responsible for violence, repression, and election fraud. And we continue to work with our European partners to increase pressure on Lukashenka’s regime.

“I am very glad to see Ambassador Julie Fisher with us today. Although she has not yet been able to visit her post in Minsk due to the Belarusian government’s refusal to grant her a visa, Ambassador Fisher has been working diligently to fulfill her duties both by coordinating the embassy from afar, and by working with our allies in the region and the exiled opposition groups that strive to bring democracy and the rule of law to Belarus.

“Madam Ambassador, I hope to hear from you about the current bilateral relationship, as well as the ways in which Putin is helping to prop up Mr. Lukashenka.

“From Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the likely winner of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election, I look forward to hearing about her plans to take Belarus forward. As leader of the opposition movement, she has persevered despite intense persecution by Lukashenka’s regime.

“I’m also very glad that we have this chance to talk with Jamie Fly, president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, about the media situation in Belarus.

“Jamie is an expert in European affairs, human rights, global media, and disinformation campaigns by foreign adversaries.

“In addition, he is no stranger to our committee, having served as national security advisor to Senator Rubio for more than four years.

“There have long been restrictions on press in Belarus, but Lukashenka has recently tightened his grip and grown bolder in his crackdown on press organizations and independent journalists who seek to hold him accountable.

“Lukashenka’s government has passed draconian laws aimed at silencing the populace. Journalists have had their offices and homes raided, and have been arrested, tortured, and even killed. Several RFE/RL journalists are in Lukashenka’s prisons.

“Just a few weeks ago, the world watched the shameless kidnapping of a journalist, when Belarusian authorities forcibly diverted his commercial flight to land in Minsk so they could carry out his arrest.

“Persecution of the free press is only a part of the oppression Belarusians face under Lukashenka’s illegitimate rule. This time last year, Lukashenka let it be known he was not going to play fair in the election.

“Belarusian authorities began with arresting opposition activists and candidates (notably, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s husband), and protests rose up around the country.

“Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians participated in peaceful demonstrations in the run-up to the August elections, and were met with brutal violence from the authorities. More recently, he legalized the use of lethal force against protestors and banned most Belarusians from leaving the country.

“For more than 25 years, Lukashenka has run Belarus as his personal dictatorship. In contrast to the democratic progress made by Belarus’ neighbors, Lukashenka has been able to operate outside of international standards due to the support he receives from the only other European autocrat worse than he: Vladimir Putin.

“With Putin’s support and by his example, Lukashenka believes he can rule with impunity. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on how we can bring that to an end.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on