President Joe Biden met with exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya Wednesday morning as she travels across the US as part of a campaign to step up international pressure on Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime.
Their meeting was not announced in advance, as officials tried to strike a balance in supporting a democracy campaigner without arousing Russia’s President Putin.
“I was honored to meet @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 talking.
For her part, Tikhanovskaya, 38, thanked the president for his “powerful sign of solidarity with millions of fearless Belarusians who are fighting peacefully for their freedom.”
President Biden met with Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Wednesday morning. Officials claimed he stopped by her meeting with national security adviser Jake Sullivan, but experts said this 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 broke out last year after controversial elections
Months of protests shocked Belarus after Lukashenko’s victory for a sixth term in the August 2020 elections, a vote labeled by the West as neither free nor fair
Protesters have demanded Lukashenko’s resignation after what many believe was a rigged election. They have gathered behind an old Belarusian national flag
She spent two weeks in the US, conducting a series of media interviews and meeting with key government 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 US Agency for Global Media.
She wants support for her campaign against Alexander Lukashenko. The strongman has gripped Belarus since 1994, cracking down on peaceful protests that erupted last year in the aftermath of an election campaign.
The White House did not announce a meeting with Biden in advance, nor did it appear on the news agency’s daily guidance on Wednesday, as is customary when the president meets foreign figures.
A senior government official told Reuters that Tsikhanouskaya was meeting Sullivan for the second time when Biden stopped by. It was an opportunity for the US president to personally show his support for the people of Belarus, the official said.
But the “pop-in” would be subject to the same schedule as any other meeting and all signed by Biden’s National Security Council, according to Brett Bruen, former director of global engagement at the White House. It would then have been camouflaged so as not to anger Lukashenko’s main ally in Moscow.
“It gives the government plausible denial that this was a ‘meeting,'” he said.
“It’s orchestrated like any other meeting, but they can’t piss Putin off, so it’s designed so they can say to the Russians well, she didn’t meet the president, he just came in.”
Afterwards, Tikhanovskaya said that the meeting had been short but cordial.
After meeting with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in partnership with VOA, Tsikhanouskaya said her conversations with Biden had been brief but cordial.
The White House has not shared any images or statements or video of the meeting other than a single photo and social media post
Belarus exploded onto the front pages when Ryanair flight FR4978, flying from Athens in Greece to Vilnius in Lithuania, was escorted by a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet to Belarus amid false reports of an onboard IED . It was forced to make an emergency landing at Minsk airport, where authorities have arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. arrested
“Because President Biden’s schedule is busy, we didn’t 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. or America.
She said she left the White House confident that the US would support 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 gave the president our messages: that the struggle in Belarus is not geopolitical — it’s our fight against violence and lawlessness; that our values are the same.’
Tsikhanouskaya, 38, took the place of her husband, a video blogger jailed on charges of violating public order, in the election.
The West does not recognize the results of the elections and does not regard Lukashenko as the legitimate leader of Belarus.
More than 35,000 people have been detained and tens of thousands have fled abroad, including Tsikhanouskaya, according to the United Nations.
The human rights organization Viasna has 577 political prisoners held during the protests.
Tensions made headlines in May when a European plane flying through Belarusian airspace was diverted and forced to land in the capital Minsk, where prominent dissident Roman Protasevich was arrested.
In June, the US, the European Union and Britain imposed sweeping sanctions on Belarusian entities and officials, calling on Minsk to end “repressive practices against its own people.”