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U.S. Special Envoy for Belarus discusses the migrant crisis on the border with Poland

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To news now that Belarus has cleared the migrant camps at its border with Poland. These are the camps that have been at the center of what has blown up into both a humanitarian crisis and a standoff between the government of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus and the West. European leaders accuse Lukashenko of trying to destabilize Europe, of weaponizing human desperation. And the U.S. says it stands with Poland, an EU member.

Well, I want to bring in the U.S. special envoy for Belarus, Julie Fisher. She joins us from another of Belarus' neighbors, Lithuania. Ambassador, welcome. Good to talk to you again.

JULIE FISHER: Thanks very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Let's start with these reports that camps have been cleared. They come via the Belarussian state news agency. And I wonder, can you confirm them? How significant a development would this be?

FISHER: Well, I'm not sure that I can confirm that the camps have been cleared as if it is something that is completed. What I have seen are reports that at least one flight in fact departed Minsk this afternoon and returned and flew to Baghdad carrying close to 400 passengers. I understand that perhaps as many as 500 were looking to leave. And I am aware and closely following reports that migrants have been provided shelter on the ground. So it's not entirely clear that this is something that has been completed, but we're going to continue to monitor it very closely.

KELLY: Yeah. The EU, as you know, says that this is a totally manufactured crisis and manufactured by Lukashenko, who's been luring migrants on flights coming in from the Middle East and beyond and then pushing them to try to cross into Europe. Is there any doubt in your mind that this is a manufactured crisis?

FISHER: I'm sorry to say that, no, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a fully manufactured crisis. And it's really important that what we not do is sort of fall into the trap of thinking that there is a migrant crisis and somehow that is separate from the political crisis that Belarus is facing. There is a migrant crisis because there is a political crisis in Belarus. It is because of the instability. It is because of the violence and the repression that Alexander Lukashenko has brought to bear in the aftermath of a fraudulent election and how the West has responded to that that, in fact, Lukashenko has taken this additional - moved to this hybrid tactic.

KELLY: I want to get to what the U.S. role is here and what yours is. I addressed you as ambassador at the beginning. I just looked. Your verified Twitter account is the official account of the U.S. Ambassador to Belarus.

FISHER: Yes.

KELLY: But you're not in Belarus. You're next door in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This is because...

FISHER: Yes.

KELLY: ...They won't let you in?

FISHER: There has been a series of steps with regards to my deployment to Minsk over the course of this year. I was confirmed by the Senate at the end of 2020. And what became increasingly clear as Lukashenko increased the violence, as he increased the number of political prisoners that he was holding, he also became increasingly intolerant of those who have views that are independent or distinct from his. And we have seen the repression he has brought to bear on his own people. We've also seen a growing intolerance for Western diplomats. So what was initially a reluctance to issue a visa then turned into the revocation of their official agreement to accept me as an ambassador.

KELLY: Has there been any contact between the U.S. and the Lukashenko regime during this crisis?

FISHER: There - look, we maintain diplomatic relations. So there is a certain level of discussion. I would not characterize it as particularly robust, but we have not severed diplomatic relations with Belarus, and they still maintain an embassy in Washington. And we still have diplomats on the ground in Minsk working incredibly hard and under very difficult circumstances to advance our interests there.

KELLY: I'm asking in part because Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor, has been on the phone this week with Lukashenko.

FISHER: Yes.

KELLY: I'm curious what the U.S. take on that is and whether it raises any worries that getting a phone call from Angela Merkel gives Lukashenko legitimacy, gives some kind of recognition that he is the de facto leader of Belarus, which is what he wants?

FISHER: Underlying that call, I fundamentally see a leader who is a humanitarian and is focused on the humanitarian question around those who are suffering in the cold and who are hungry. And I think that everyone who has looked at the pictures can understand that instinct.

I think it's incredibly important to recognize the patterns that Lukashenko has built over decades. The question of whether or not it is possible to make arrangements to try to resolve one discrete issue, whether he can be trusted to live up to any such agreements, you know, these are questions that, you know...

KELLY: And whether direct contact does give him legitimacy, which is something that the U.S. and the West has resisted.

FISHER: And I think that Europe, to a large extent, continues that policy. I think that the decision that came out of the European Union on Monday with regards to Belarus announcing their expectation for another round of sanctions in the near future, I think, you know, spoke incredibly clearly that the unity of the 27 on this question - we have been clear that we intend to roll out additional sanctions with them. And I think that Europe's view has not changed.

KELLY: Does the U.S. have any leverage here aside from sanctions, which so far have not achieved the desired U.S. result in Belarus?

FISHER: Sanctions are an incredibly effective tool. And I will tell you that I believe that Belarus is one of those cases where we have seen sanctions drive to specific results. We have seen our sanctions effective at gaining the release of political prisoners. I think it's really important to note that. I also think that sanctions aren't a tool that work overnight. Our most significant sanctions, we really started to roll those out just this summer. So I believe it's a little too early to say that our sanctions aren't yielding results.

KELLY: Last question - you tweeted yesterday, Belarus' best days are ahead, and we'll get there together. What gives you confidence that Belarus has good days ahead?

FISHER: I think the thing that gives me real confidence about this is the Belarusians with whom I have the opportunity to interact. There are so many Belarusians who have been driven out of their country because of the climate in Belarus and that - many of them have found a home here in Lithuania. There are also many in Poland. They're in Ukraine. There are also many in Georgia and in other countries.

I've had the opportunity to meet and to hear from them and to learn. I see what a deeply engaged generation is coming up in Belarus; how they are motivated to build a better future for their country; how they understand that 27 years of Alexander Lukashenko's rule, it may have yielded much for Alexander Lukashenko and for his family, but it hasn't yielded so much for the average Belarusian. I see that Belarusians care an awful lot about the economy and COVID and all the things we all care about. And there's - you know, they're being held back right now. I know that there's opportunity for them in the future.

KELLY: Julie Fisher is the U.S. special envoy for Belarus. She spoke to us from next door in Lithuania. Julie Fisher, thank you.

FISHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "SECOND SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.