Are Western sanctions pushing Belarus further into Putin’s embrace?

Twenty-six years have passed since Alexander Lukashenko came to power as the first president of the Republic of Belarus and, to this day, he remains the only person to have ever held that office. However, following a disputed election on August 9th, in which Lukashenko claimed more than 80% of the popular vote, the Belarusian people have been protesting en masse to bring a long overdue end to his tenure. Lukashenko has met the largely peaceful pro-democracy protests – now entering their eighth week – with force: using water cannons and mass arrests to try to curb opposition. Rumours of police brutality and torture abound, prompting the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to open an investigation into human rights violations.

In addition to this censure, Western powers, including Canada, the UK, the United States and the European Union, have imposed restrictive sanctions in the hope of compelling Lukashenko to change tack; to hold a free and fair election, end violence and repression, and release all political prisoners. These measures, including asset freezes and travel bans on several top Belarusian officials, are certainly a sign of international condemnation, but thus far have effected little improvement.

This is not the first of Lukashenko’s electoral victories to be disputed, nor the first time that sanctions have been brought against his government. Since 2006, the EU and the US have, at various times, imposed punitive measures on Belarusian officials for similar violations: falsified election results in both 2015 and 2010, and the stifling of political opposition through violence and arrests. Needless to say, Lukashenko’s premiership, and his regime of repression, have survived past sanctions. Will this month’s measures yield any change?

Unfortunately, some commentators fear not. Rather than safeguarding stability, the latest sanctions could alienate Lukashenko and propel Belarus towards a closer economic and political union with neighbouring Russia. Since the EU announced sanctions, Poland and Lithuania have come under pressure from Belarus to withdraw a number of their diplomats. Meanwhile, Lukashenko is threatening to revise the country’s relations with the EU. These developments add to extant US regulations banning trade with nine major Belarusian companies and forcing Belarus to rely increasingly on Russian markets.

However, the Kremlin has not always been sympathetic to the Belarusian President. In the lead-up to the 2010 presidential election, Russian media unleashed a torrent of defamatory propaganda in an effort to undermine Lukashenko’s campaign. Nevertheless, recent events appear to have inspired a change of heart and it is apparent that the Kremlin is now striving to foster a more positive relationship with its neighbour. Soon after the disputed election, as anti-government protesters took to the streets in droves, Putin offered the aid of Russian law-enforcers and TV personnel to help Lukashenko maintain his fast-slipping grasp on power. Furthermore, following an in-person meeting between the two leaders in September, it was announced that Russia would be granting Belarus a $1.5bn loan. Since then, Putin has explicitly aligned the interests of the two countries by using Western sanctions as an excuse for dual retaliation, promising that Russia will mirror any reactionary sanctions that Belarus chooses to impose. It has been suggested that complicit Russian officials should be included in the sanctions lists, with the aim of deterring Russians from assisting Lukashenko in his continued efforts to repress opposition. The general feeling, however, is that such measures would come too late.

In the context of Belarus’ future – particularly the civil liberties of its citizens – Lukashenko’s growing intimacy with Russia is deeply concerning. However, the recent imposition of sanctions against Belarus has also had wider implications for the EU, exposing serious flaws in its decision-making procedure. In an act that the Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edgars Rinkevics, described as political ‘hostage taking,’ discussions were briefly held in deadlock as Cyprus attempted to barter with the council. Cypriot officials insisted that they would only lend their support to sanctions if similar measures were imposed to impede Turkey’s energy exploration in disputed Mediterranean waters. Although the sanctions were eventually authorised, this delay leaves serious question marks over the EU’s foreign policy requirement for unanimous agreement among its 27 member states. Human rights issues will not wait for Council directives to be debated.

The larger question remains: with the limitations of the EU’s power laid bare and Lukashenko backed by the economic and military clout of Russia, who or what will stand in defence of the Belarusian people?

 

Image: Kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons

 

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