Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka deserves sanctions. This election campaign in Belarus, which culminated in a vote on Sunday is the most brutal and dirty in its history. But, so far, the EU, the UK and the US have only issued familiar-sounding and futile appeals to the Belarusian authorities condemning their actions. Not imposing sanctions is a de facto licence to continue with repression.
Despite all this, the West is unlikely to impose significant sanctions afterwards. There are several questionable reasons for this. First, Western policymakers fear sanctions against Lukashenko will make him more likely to genuflect to Russia. However, relations with Russia have already deteriorated as Belarus accuses Russia of trying to interfere with its domestic affairs.
Sanctions serve as a wake-up call. The Belarusian authorities then might seek - once again - to repair relations with the West and reduce repression for greater assistance in any direct confrontation with Russia.
Second, the West is reluctant to implement sanctions because it has already invested somewhat in warming relations with Belarusian authorities. Punishing Lukashenko could mean burying the - admittedly modest - achievements of a Belarus-West dialogue that started in 2014 after the conflict in Ukraine began.
Even US secretary of state Mike Pompeo met with Lukashenko in Minsk this year, after which Belarus replaced a small but symbolic amount of Russian oil for American. All the same, the West has its conscience to answer to if dialogue is won but repressions continue.
The third reason why the West may not resort to targeted economic sanctions and visa restrictions is a latent concern whether such measures have any effect on democratization processes at all. They may be appropriate punishment, but there is little evidence they ever change the nature of a regime.
According to this logic, if the West imposes sanctions, the Belarusian authorities will continue to crack down with repression because they will have nothing to lose. That said, in previous years, the Belarusian authorities have released political prisoners in response to sticks and carrots brandished by the West. If Belarusian political prisoners did not have a price tag, the authorities would most likely keep everyone in jail.
To be fair, there are reasonable arguments in favour of and against sanctions. But if the West fails to impose them - be it through lack of political will or out of genuine concern about their effectiveness - at least it should focus on helping ordinary Belarusians withstand Lukashenko’s repressions. After the vote, arrested and jailed Belarusian citizens might lack money for lawyers and arbitrarily imposed fines.
If repression spreads further, independent media and human rights organizations will need funds to keep their structures running in the heat of the crackdown. Many entrepreneurs might lose their companies for openly supporting free elections. Thus, if the West will not sanction Lukashenko, it should at least show solidarity with these Belarusians in peril.
This article was originally published in The Telegraph.