More than a month after the presidential election sparked massive protests in Belarus, the future of the country remains in question. For weeks, Belarusian citizens have been fighting for their basic political rights, and their battle has no end in sight as President Alexander Lukashenko shows no sign of stepping down. The uncertainty and volatility have created another test for the European Union’s (EU) ability to respond effectively and credibly to crises at its borders.
The initial reaction to the Belarusian election
After 26 years under Lukashenko’s tight rule, a number of viable opposition candidates decided to rival him in this year’s elections. Only Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky, was allowed on the ballot and became the main opposition candidate. Her team toured the country, assembled rallies of thousands of people, and encouraged initiatives such as wearing white ribbons as a sign of protest.
Following what were clearly rigged elections indicating that Lukashenko had won around 80% of the vote, a wave of violence shocked the local population and later, the international community. Protests were met with extreme police brutality, and gruesome accounts of those who were detained and tortured shocked the country.
For a few days, Western media was silent about these events that should have been featured on the front pages. Information could be found mostly on Telegram channels or Twitter, partly due to the Belarusian regime blocking the internet and other social media channels.
Most EU institutions and member states did not say much when the violence broke out, except for Belarus’ neighbors Poland and Lithuania. On August 19, the European Council held an online summit during which EU leaders stated they did not recognize the election results, condemned the violent response to protests, and declared they would impose sanctions against those individuals responsible for the violence. However, with classic EU pragmatism, they stopped short of openly demanding Lukashenko’s resignation.
It remains unclear what kind of influence the EU’s statements will have, and whether member states will turn their words into actions, especially at a time when they face another possible COVID-19 wave and complex Brexit negotiations.
Because it would require a unanimous decision, an EU agreement on sanctions against Belarusian officials would be difficult and the process lengthy. According to reports, Cyprus wants to adopt a sweeping sanctions package that would include measures against Turkey and its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Nicosia has blocked the Belarus sanctions unless both issues were linked together. There were also disagreements over whether the list should include Lukashenko himself.
Are EU sanctions enough?
While sanctions are a first step, they are usually not enough, especially when it comes to ending the regime of an autocrat clinging to power. The EU has previously imposed measures such as asset freezes on Belarus, and then lifted them as soon as Minsk showed signs of “constructive engagement.” As a result, Lukashenko has no incentive to take EU measures seriously.
Lukashenko continues to blame the protests on the West, and retains control of the state media and security forces. He is also trying to cut off the opposition movement’s leadership by detaining the most prominent activists, including Maria Kolesnikova.
What he clearly lacks, however, is popular support. His violent response has not broken the morale of Belarusian citizens, who continue to organize protests and demonstrate every week, proving expectations wrong.
Now is the time when a more powerful response from the EU is needed. Measures should include a stronger condemnation of the violence, a quick adoption of sanctions that target more Belarusian officials–especially those with property or interests in Europe–and a firm demand for new elections that would be monitored by external actors, such as the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe. This would help bring about stability and ensure that the EU maintains its soft power and credibility in its eastern neighborhood.
On the international stage, Lukashenko has one major asset: support of Russian President Putin. Their countries form a union state without borders and a customs union, as they are both members of the Eurasian Economic Union, making Belarus strategically important for Russia.
Many argue that Putin would not use military force in Belarus like he did in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, given that such an intervention would not have domestic support. It is also bad timing, with tensions rising between Europe and Russia over the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
At the same time, few analysts could predict the events in 2014, leaving many to speculate about the possible Russian response if Lukashenko asks for military help. For now, Moscow has only promised financial assistance.
It is unclear what will happen next, but the citizens of Belarus have shown that they won’t let things go back to how they were. Despite facing a number of internal challenges, the EU should be prepared to support these citizens and address developments in its neighborhood more actively and decisively.