By Eugenie Voitkevich
Like many other immigrants from Belarus, I am planning to proudly cast my vote in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The feeling that your vote truly counts is something quite special, even if your chosen candidate eventually loses in a fair fight. It is especially true for immigrants from places like Belarus or Russia, where election fraud is commonplace. I plan to closely watch the presidential debates, with a special interest in one topic: what plan does each candidate have to stop Russia’s President Vladimir Putin from undermining democratic values and the process of fair elections in the United States and abroad? The decision to leave my homeland as a young adult was a difficult one, and the path to eventual American citizenship was long and hard. But I cherish the values of my adopted country, and I will vote for the candidate with the best plan to protect those values.
Particularly as we Belarusian immigrants watch with horror the events going on now in our homeland, we need to also focus on the threat of interference in the U.S. election.
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American voters are well aware of the danger that the regime of Vladimir Putin presents to the American voting process. A recent poll showed that 75% of Americans believe it is likely that Russia or another foreign power will try to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. In other countries, Putin’s interference is not so subtle. On August 9, a presidential election took place in Belarus. By credible accounts, it appears Vladimir Putin is collaborating to cover up large-scale election fraud in Belarus.
Massive post-election protests have been going on in Belarus for seven weeks now. Many hope that the current turmoil is the beginning of the end of the 26-year rule of the Belarusian authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko. Many analysts agree that the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, won the election, but was forced to leave the county under tremendous pressure from the dictator. After the elections, Lukashenko’s government launched a campaign of systematic beating, torture, and mass incarceration, hoping to weaken the peaceful protest. Instead, it led to unprecedented unity in Belarusian society.
These dramatic events in Belarus brought together the Belarusian diaspora in the United States, as nothing has before. Thousands of Belarusian-Americans coordinated their actions via social media networks to gather financial, informational, and other assistance for unjustly imprisoned, injured, and arbitrarily fired protesters. Marches of solidarity with Belarusian citizens have been taking place in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta, in addition to the traditional protest venues of New York City and Washington D.C. Immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, and other post-Soviet countries joined in support. Those of us involved in these grassroots-organized marches are exercising our American right to peacefully protest events that matter to us. We want the same rights for the people of Belarus.
Many immigrants from Eastern Europe share concerns about the recent actions of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin towards Belarus. Mr. Putin is among only a handful of other authoritarian leaders, who recognized Lukashenko as the legitimate President of Belarus after the 2020 elections. Putin openly promised Lukashenko to provide additional police and military support to suppress protests and declared that Russia would loan $1,5 billion dollars to the defiant dictator.
Whatever game plan Vladimir Putin has in Belarus, he is likely brewing something sinister: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 is still fresh in the memory, and Russia-backed military forces continue the war in Eastern Ukraine. Similarly, Belarusians’ quest for national identity is hardly among Mr. Putin’s top priorities.
Economic and individual sanctions by the U.S. Government against Lukashenko’s regime are certainly appropriate - in particular, towards Belarusian officials responsible for the brutal beating, torture, and death of peaceful protesters. In addition, as some experts point out, the United States and Europe should strongly consider sanctions against the close circle of business associates of Vladimir Putin and large Russian companies that support and collaborate with Lukashenko’s regime. Without Russia’s support, Lukasheno’s system will collapse much sooner, and Belarus can finally have free and fair elections.
People of the United States, just like people of Belarus, deserve to freely choose their governments, without foreign interference. The United States is in a unique position to deter those who try to interfere with elections abroad, primarily with the help of meaningful economic sanctions. What about in our own country? Should we sanction Putin’s Russia for election interference, and how strong should those sanctions be? Are there other solutions? I will be listening to the presidential debates with the hope of hearing from both Vice President Biden and President Trump on this issue that is so important abroad, but also here at home.
Eugenie Voitkevich, Esq.,
Formerly, legal officer of the Belarusian Center for Legal Information in Minsk, Belarus; currently - New Jersey trial attorney, member of the Board of Trustees of the Association Trial Attorneys of New Jersey.