The new United States ambassador to Belarus has met with the country's exiled opposition leader in neighboring Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on Wednesday.
The meeting between Julie Fisher and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was described as a symbolic act by the new ambassador, who has yet to present her credentials in Minsk.
The pair attended a ceremony to commemorate victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 at the memorial to Chernobyl workers and firefighters in Vilnius.
Tsikhanouskaya moved to Lithuania under pressure from the Belarusian authorities in August 2020, shortly after having ostensibly losing to Alexander Lukashenko defeated her in the country's widely disputed presidential election.
Official results handed Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994, his sixth term in office. It triggered the largest and the most sustained wave of protests in the ex-Soviet nation's history. Tsikhanouskaya and her supporters refused to recognize the results.
Fisher was appointed as the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since 2008 in December. She met with Tsikhanouskaya on the eve of talks between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two are expected to discuss further strengthening the ties between the two in Moscow on Thursday.
“Today’s action sends a clear signal that the U.S. stands with the Belarusian people,” said Fisher. “As U.S. Ambassador to Belarus, my priority is to embody that support.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, however, said later on Wednesday that Fisher will not be taking up her position in the country under the present conditions.
“Being able to return an ambassador to Minsk would send a powerful signal," he said. "But as long as what we have seen in Belarus continues, the human rights violations, the repression, there can be no business as usual.”
Since protests began in Belarus last summer more than 34,000 people have been arrested, many of them beaten, and the most prominent opposition figures have fled or been jailed.
Fisher said at her meeting with Tsikhanouskaya: "It is important that the international community speak up and speak out about what’s happening, that we pay close attention, and that we call for the immediate release of all political prisoners in Belarus.”
Tsikhanouskaya said: “I want to see Belarus independent, free and building friendly and mutually beneficial relations with all countries, first and foremost with our neighbours, but with other ones, too."
Earlier this week, the U.S. re-imposed sanctions on nine state-owned companies in Belarus.