Since the beginning of the domestic political crisis in 2020, the Belarus question has become a controversy for Western governments. Although Lithuania has attempted to lead Western action towards Belarus, it lacks the diplomatic heft to coordinate policy across the entire West. While the Biden administration in the US has been conducting a more active policy towards Belarus in this period, it has been unwilling to take the lead; meanwhile, policymaking in the EU proceeds slowly, relying on consensus. Individual European countries become less enthusiastic about assuming a leadership role vis-à-vis Belarus once they begin to understand the complexity of the situation. One example is Austria, which tried to create a platform for dialogue for all stakeholders but was ignored by both the Belarusian and Russian governments. As a result, the Belarus question has become a problem for everyone – and for no-one. For the West, there is nothing particularly unusual about such cacophony; however, this has not resulted from a constructive mix of policy ideas, but rather from a combination of passivity and sporadic decision-making. Hence, Western foreign policy towards Belarus has quickly come to consist of half measures.
Three particular examples of actions exhibiting a fundamental ambivalence towards Belarus stand out:
- First, the goal of realizing both the complete isolation and the diplomatic non-recognition of the Lukashenka regime has turned out to be unattainable. Time and time again, Western leaders have felt compelled to reach out to Lukashenka to discuss regional security or the release of specific individuals. Thus, while the French ambassador left Belarus, as he did not wish to legitimize the regime by presenting his credentials to Lukashenka, the ambassadors of the EU, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland were advised by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to leave the country, and the appointed ambassador of the US was not allowed to enter Belarus, the ambassador of Switzerland presented her credentials in February 2022. Later the same month, the Belarusian authorities released the political prisoner Natallia Hersche, a Swiss and Belarusian national.
- Second, although Western politicians have stated their refusal to recognize the Lukashenka regime in the strongest terms, the sanctions imposed by the West before May 2021 were inadequate, weak and overdue, giving the regime cause to believe that the West’s ability to support the protest movement was limited. During 2021, Belarus steadily increased its exports to EU countries, which made it hard to understand whether the West wanted to weaken the regime, or strengthen it.
- Third, Western policy towards Belarus failed to secure the support of certain partners, which reinforced perceptions within the Lukashenka regime that the West’s intentions were not serious: for example, the economic and diplomatic relations between Belarus and countries as diverse as Hungary, Israel, Japan, Moldova and Türkiye changed little after the mass repressions of 2020.
Western policymakers and business interests often justified the West’s prudence before May 2021 by claiming that they did not see the point of sanctions that would make life more difficult for ordinary Belarusians. Experts also named other reasons, for example: ‘the West did not want to raise the stakes in a crisis unfolding in a country that it considered to be part of Russia’s sphere of influence’; ‘avoiding sending Belarus deeper into Russia’s embrace’; ‘the West was waiting for Lukashenka to come to his senses before initiating dialogue with him’; or simply ‘the West did not wish to act against its own economic interests by imposing sanctions on Belarus’.
In any case, the argument about needing to avoid negative ramifications for Belarusian society became less salient when the actions of Lukashenka’s government began directly to affect the interests of the West. In May 2021, as a Ryanair plane flew through Belarusian airspace on its way from Athens to Vilnius, the Belarusian authorities ordered it to be grounded – under false pretences – in order that two Belarusian activists on board could be arrested. From July, the Belarusian regime orchestrated a crisis on the EU border by manipulating migrants from the Middle East by way of the deceptive promise of easy entry to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia from Belarus, as well as helping migrants to cross the border illegally. In February 2022, Lukashenka allowed – or at least did not object to – Russia’s use of Belarusian territory and military infrastructure in its invasion of Ukraine. After each of these episodes, the West imposed sanctions in response to Lukashenka’s actions; notably, however, it stopped closely assessing the impact of those actions on events within Belarus. As one Belarusian pro-democracy figure said: ‘Whereas before May 2021 it was difficult to convince the West to impose sanctions on the businesspeople closest to Lukashenka, after 24 February 2022 the West began sanctioning even those businesspeople who weren’t doing anything wrong.’ Belarus is now one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world and the West has exhausted most of its capacities in this regard.
Through their sanctions, which formed a large part of Western policy towards the Lukashenka regime (and which were supported by the Belarusian pro-democracy movement), Western states could not achieve the difficult task of punishing the regime without inflicting collateral damage on the Belarusian people. As one expert has pointed out, one of the most flagrant examples of this was a ban on the overflight of EU airspace and on access to EU airports by Belarusian carriers: ‘They deprived Belarusians of the opportunity to fly to the West, but there is no indication that they did anything to damage the stability of the regime.’ Concurrently, the sanctions that were supposed to be the most painful for the regime – those focused on specific sectors of the Belarusian economy – have not dealt out significant damage, as Lukashenka has been able to reorient these sectors towards new markets and to solve many of the problems associated with the transit of sanctioned goods.
Table 1. Attitudes of urban Belarusians towards Western sanctions
Question: In your opinion, with regard to Belarus, the West should…