Belarus Policy: Time to Play Hardball

Predictably, Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s regime has betrayed its people and the West’s trust yet again. A new, tougher approach is now the only option, and sanctions are only one of several actions that should be taken.

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Women take part in an event in support of detained and injured participants in mass protests against the results of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images.

Women take part in an event in support of detained and injured participants in mass protests against the results of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Photo by Natalia Fedosenko\TASS via Getty Images.

Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s 26-year rule — one of the world’s longest — is itself testament to his regime’s unwillingness to change. Most of Belarus’s immediate neighbours — particularly Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland — are far more prosperous. Now, with the farce of last week’s vote and the subsequent renewed violence that Minsk is willing to use on its citizens, Belarus finds itself at the very bottom of the post-Soviet legitimacy league table. But others share a portion of blame for this saga. The West — and the EU in particular — have failed the people of Belarus.

Russia — as ever in its relationships with the Soviet Union’s other successor states — has much to answer for. Like a drug pusher, it made a loss-leading investment in getting Belarus hooked on subsidised energy with meaningless security guarantees thrown in. Lukashenka may not have been the most compliant of post-Soviet leaders — especially recently — but he is still preferred by the Kremlin over any other potential contender, especially the reforming ones currently at the fore. ‘A son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch’ is Russia’s take.

But if Russia is the pusher, Western countries have been the enablers. Lukashenka has played them — and played them off against Russia — by frequently rejecting the offers of one and getting closer to the other, then switching and doing the same. The inability or unwillingness to recognize — and act on — evidence of the regime’s insincerity and its propensity to inflict harm on its own citizens has encouraged Minsk’s worst excesses. At the time of writing, more than 3,000 are reported to have been arrested and many tortured.

The EU bears special responsibility for this enabling. Ever since Belarus’s independence almost 30 years ago, it has offered plenty of carrots but few meaningful sticks. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said that ‘harassment & violent repression of peaceful protesters has no place in Europe’, but statements alone are inadequate. The Belarusian people are risking their freedoms and their lives on the streets of Minsk while the EU simply ‘calls on’ the Belarusian authorities to respect the democratic process.

Never too late

There is plenty that can be done. Sanctions are a much-touted first step and they have been proven to change the calculus, if not the character, of a regime. The EU, the UK and the US should act decisively and in unison to impose them immediately. Included in this would be the immediate halting of direct EU support to state entities.

But — as with Russia — it is lazy to limit responses to sanctions alone. Expulsion from international groups and values-based organizations should also be expedited. The EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) project with Belarus and five other countries is a prime example of supposedly conditional offers of financial assistance having been accepted, claimed and then defaulted on, time and again. It is time to make an example of Belarus and expel it from the EaP since it is abundantly clear it has no intention of adopting the values demanded of it.

The OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) was invited by the Belarusian authorities too late to observe last Sunday’s vote-rigging, so why, in the face of such obvious obstruction, is Belarus even a member? The OSCE often claims its strength is its inclusivity, but this has rarely stood up to scrutiny. Inclusivity may have advantages, but one should also acknowledge its propensity to dilute effectiveness. Belarus should be expelled from here too.

The same goes for the IMF, the World Bank group, and its WTO observer status. It is time to make an example of this regime.

There should be less diplomatic nicety. It is natural that foreign service officials are hard-wired to want to make things better through their undoubted skills of sensitivity and tact, and sometimes this is the right answer. But not always. It would be better in some instances, such as this one, to give a tougher message — making it clear this regime is no longer seen as legitimate and that, where possible, western countries will seek relationships with more representative figures. This is neither easy nor especially pleasant, but it is not the same as breaking off diplomatic relations entirely, which is not wise as sometimes the organs of power must be dealt with.

And in terms of immediate practical help, the EU has an obligation to open its borders to Belarusian refugees who will surely come its way as conditions deteriorate. Lithuania is already showing the way in this regard.

Belarus is not one of the more difficult countries. It has no influence, no natural resources and therefore no leverage. It could resort to even more brutal repression of its citizens, but it should be made clear that such a desperate move by the authorities would entail even greater sanction. A common argument against a tougher approach is that it will drive Belarus into the arms of Russia. But this is to fall into the same trap — blackmail in reality — that we have seen for 20 years. In fact, it would be a good litmus test for a similar policy towards other ‘abuser countries’, such as Hungary.

Russia is certainly watching closely right now, and the last thing it wants is another colour revolution. The probability is that it will get this wish for now, as the demonstrations will surely cool off and key opposition figures not already in jail have been forced to flee. But western quiescence, as it always does, encourages Russia to act with further impunity. No invasion needed this time though if it already has most of what it wants — Union State notwithstanding — and the West stands aside.

A Chinese proverb maintains that ‘the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now’. This holds true for dealing with Belarus. It is not too late to act decisively and play hardball. In doing so, the EU would help repair its reputation for hand-wringing and the people of Belarus might look at the EU with a respect they have lost.