Exclusive: U.S. considers sanctions on Belarusians for election fraud, violence against protesters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is considering imposing sanctions on seven Belarusians it believes were involved in falsifying the results of the Aug. 9 election and in violence against peaceful protesters, a senior State Department official said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Law enforcement officers stand guard during an opposition demonstration to protest against presidential election results, in front of the Independence Palace in Minsk, Belarus August 23, 2020. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States could consider imposing sanctions on Russia if it were to intervene overtly with force in Belarus, where protests erupted after an Aug. 9 election that the opposition says was rigged to prolong President Alexander Lukashenko’s 26-year rule.

The official provided the most detailed description to date of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun’s talks in Moscow last week, in which he warned senior Russian officials against the overt use of force in Belarus, which is sandwiched between Russia and the NATO Western security alliance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week said he had set up a reserve police force to support Lukashenko if necessary, but he saw no need to deploy them for now.

A former Soviet republic, Belarus maintains close political, economic and cultural ties to Russia and belongs to a Russia-led military alliance. The two are also joined by a treaty that, at least on paper, proclaims a “union state,” which Putin has sought to develop into more of a political and economic reality.

Lukashenko denies electoral fraud and has shown no sign of backing down despite the threat of Western sanctions. The U.S. official did not name the seven Belarusians it may target, and he noted that Lukashenko already is under U.S. sanctions.

“We’ve got a group of seven people that we are working with Treasury for the evidentiary package” to impose sanctions, the official told Reuters, saying that the United States was likely to discuss the punitive measures publicly in the coming days.

“It is a minimal effort to ... not just name and shame but to show that when people both steal elections and commit violence against peaceful protesters exercising fundamental freedoms of assembly and speech that there needs to be some accountability,” added the official.

A person who answered the telephone at the Belarusian embassy in Washington said any questions should be asked directly to the government in Minsk.

The U.S. official said Biegun made clear last week in talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and others “that there would be consequences in the U.S.-Russian relationship were the Russians to intervene overtly with force in Belarus.”

Biegun said this would be the case whoever wins the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election because “the bipartisan sentiment in Congress will set the guardrails and the possibilities for the U.S.-Russian relationship,” the official said.

The deputy secretary of state “didn’t go into the specifics. It was just, ‘If you thought the last four years were bad, the next four will be worse,’” said the U.S. official.

While U.S. President Donald Trump has sought to improve relations with his Russian counterpart, the Trump administration also has tightened U.S. sanctions on Russia and rotated U.S. troops into NATO ally Poland, moves Moscow dislikes.

There is also deep unease in the U.S. Congress over the view of American intelligence agencies that Russia worked to influence the 2016 U.S. election in favor of Trump and is doing so again ahead of the Nov. 3 election pitting the Republican president against Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden.

While the U.S. official did not name the seven Belarusians Washington may sanction, he did say that five of them were sanctioned by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on Monday.

The three Baltic countries imposed travel bans on Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials, signaling impatience with the West’s cautious approach by announcing sanctions without waiting for the rest of the European Union.

The U.S. official said the seven people the United States may sanction would be targeted under an executive order signed by then-U.S. President George W. Bush.

Executive Order 13405, signed in 2006, targets those who “undermine democratic processes or institutions in Belarus” or who perpetrated or were responsible for “human rights abuses related to political repression.” Among other things, it freezes any assets those designated may have under U.S. jurisdiction.

The EU, the U.S. official said, was unlikely to impose its own sanctions until late September or early October given the time taken by its process, which typically involves coordination among its 27 members.

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker