By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States signaled on Friday that it will soon punish individual Belarusians with sanctions for election fraud and a brutal crackdown on protests as Washington urged Russia to tell Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down.
Lukashenko denies rigging the country’s Aug. 9 election, which official results said he won by a landslide. He also has refused to talk to the opposition, accusing them of trying to wreck the former Soviet republic squeezed between NATO and Russia.
Speaking to reporters during a conference call, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Washington is coordinating sanctions with the European Union but made clear neither would wait for the other to impose penalties.
“We are looking at targeted sanctions aimed at the individuals who are most responsible for … the violence as well as the theft of the election,” Biegun said, adding wider sanctions might be considered later but Washington was loath to do anything that would hurt the broader population.
A senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters on Sept. 1 Washington was weighing sanctions on seven Belarusians.
Biegun said Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years and is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, is increasingly reliant on Moscow to maintain his rule, saying this could turn Belarusian public opinion against Russia.
“It risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow,” he said, adding that he hoped the Kremlin would voice concern about the violence against protesters in Belarus and the abductions of opposition figures.
“A free and fair election will allow Belarusian people to select who will be the next president of Belarus,” he said. “Ultimately we hope the message from Moscow to Minsk is that the ruler needs to give way to the will of his people.”
(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)