SANCTIONING BELARUS: YES, NO, OR DOES IT MATTER?

By Marylia Hushcha

A month ago, a Ryanair civilian plane flying from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk when it was flying through Belarus’ airspace. Belarusian authorities arrested two passengers who were on board of the plane: Raman Pratasevich – a blogger and opposition activist and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. The incident produced an international scandal, resulting in the immediate closure of the EU’s airspace for Belarusian planes.

With the EU being directly affected by the political crisis inside Belarus, European officials promised to speed up their work on an additional sanctions package to be adopted at the end of this week. USA, UK and Canada have also imposed further sanctions over Belarus in light of the incident.

While it is doubtful that sanctions will help release Pratasevich any time soon, the overall impact on Belarus’ economy is going to be much more severe than previous measures. Nevertheless, the question remains whether the deteriorating economic situation will make the regime in Belarus change its course.

Sanctions after August 2020

Since the start of the crisis in Belarus in August 2020 three rounds of sanctions were introduced against the Belarusian regime by the EU. The first round came in early October 2020 – almost two months after the violent crackdown on the demonstrations in the country had started. The package included targeted sanctions against forty Belarussian officials and members of the security forces whose assets in the EU were frozen and they were banned from entering the EU’s territory. The second round of sanctions followed in November, with restrictions adopted against further 14 high level officials as well as Aliaksandr Lukashenka himself. In December, further 29 individuals and seven enterprises (primarily involved in the military industry) were added to the sanctions list. The talk about a fourth package came in February 2021 already but the discussion in the European Council has been repeatedly postponed.

The fourth package to be adopted this week includes much more far-reaching measures. Further 78 names are added to the travel ban and asset freeze list, including top businessmen with close ties to the regime[1]. In total there are now 166 individuals and 15 entities on the list. Belarus’ major export-oriented enterprises in the oil and potash industries will also be banned from the EU market. Lastly, sanctions on the financial sector will limit the possibilities for Belarusian banks to take loans and receiving investments from banks in the EU. This last part of the package was put in danger by Austrian resistance to sanctions in the banking sector last week. Vienna has been one of major Western investors in Belarus, with Austrian Raiffeisen bank operating in the country through its daughter Priorbank.

EU sanctions policy before the political crisis

The logic behind sanctions might be manifold. Sanctions do not necessarily aim at altering behavior of political leaders but can serve to weaken the economic and military potential of the country, demonstrate the capacity to act, stigmatize the wrongful acts or help uphold international norms[2].

To date, the EU has repeatedly put sanctions on Belarus. In fact, the arms embargo introduced in 2011 has never been lifted since, despite periods of rapprochement in relations between Brussels and Minsk. As a result of the authoritarian backlash in Belarus that was visible already in the 1990s, Belarus has never signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU (unlike the rest of the Eastern Partnership countries) and its participation in the EU’s General System of Preferences was suspended.

EU sanctions usually came as a reaction to authoritarian tendencies inside Belarus, such as undemocratic constitutional changes, rigged parliamentary and presidential elections, crackdown on demonstrations and independent media, and imprisonment of opposition leaders. Sanctions were suspended during periods of relative liberalization and improvement of relations with the West. For example, privatization and release of imprisoned presidential candidates in 2008 resulted into restoration of contacts with the EU and suspension of travel bans for senior officials[3]. The last sanctions regime prior to the events of 2020 had been lifted in early 2016. At that time, Belarus did not support the annexation of Crimea, thereby angering Russians. Belarus’ position on Crimea also enabled rapprochement with the EU who was concerned with the Crimean scenario repeating itself in Belarus and thus less insistent on its conditionality demands[4]. In 2017 Lukashenka was even invited to attend the Eastern Partnership Summit in Brussels. He sent his foreign minister instead, though.

Overall, attempts of rapprochement with the West from the Belarusian side were undertaken out of pragmatic reasons rather than change of heart. Improvement of ties with the EU correlates to the worsening of Belarus-Russia relations, the latter one was usually accompanied by cuts in subsidies to Belarus’ economy. Through rapprochement with Western partners Belarusian authorities were primarily seeking access to alternative sources of financial support (e.g. USD 3,5 billion IMF loan in 2009). In addition, Lukashenka skillfully utilized these improved ties politically, using them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Russia. In 2010, just ten days before the presidential elections he managed to strike a favorable deal with Vladimir Putin on gas prices and crude oil despite months of stand-off before[5]. Finally, liberalization inside the country was permitted to the extent that it did not endanger the existing political system and its elites.

Do sanctions have impact?

The track record of sanctions on Belarus is rather mixed. They proved successful in some instances because of conflicts with Russia and the leadership’s desire to preserve wealth[6]. In addition, it was indirect effects of sanctions rather than the direct impact of blacklists and visa-bans that made the difference. International financial institutions and development banks did not operate in Belarus while it was under sanctions. Stigmatization and reputational damages that came along with sanctions most likely discouraged other potential investors from entering the Belarusian market, too.

The arms embargo demonstrated a principled position of the EU not to sell weapons to the regimes which could use them against their own population. It was hardly an actual restraint for Belarus, as Minsk purchased its weapons mostly from Russia in any case. Some argue that sanctions imposed on Belarus in the aftermath of 2010 elections produced a specific outcome, as the EU made their lifting conditional on the release of political prisoners[7]. Others claim, however, that sanctions played only a secondary role, as Minsk had already sought better relations with the West and thus would have eventually released political prisoners with or without sanctions[8].

In any event, the calculations of the regime in Belarus these days differ starkly from any previous case. Since August 2020, it has existed in a survival mode. While in all previous election cycles Lukashenka enjoyed considerable popular support (even if the elections had not been rigged, he would have probably won them), his presidential legitimacy today is recognized and supported virtually only by Russia. Brussels does not see him as a legitimate leader and demands his departure – a non-starter for Lukashenka. A tough sectoral sanctions regime might not necessarily force him to concede to the EU’s demands. At the same time, sectoral sanctions have been a rare event in the EU policy that has traditionally prioritized individual restrictions. Their adoption shows the extent of shock over the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk. The strong EU reaction had certainly not been expected by the regime.

Sanctions do put pressure on the regime in absolute terms, but they will not change the dynamic of the political crisis in Belarus. Furthermore, stark economic decline can push Lukashenka even more towards Russia and make him more vulnerable to Moscow’s demands. Increasing dependence of the regime on Russia would likely happen with or without sanctions. Sanctions however accelerate it. The European Commission has tried to offer carrots, promising a € 3 billion aid package to Belarus in exchange for new elections[9]. However, this is not sufficient to impress Belarusian authorities. Putin promised Lukashenka a similar amount already in September last year.

What else can the EU do?

Ultimately, the sanctions regime on Belarus fulfils several functions for the EU. Having the ambition of becoming a serious geopolitical player, the EU has viewed sanctions as a centerpiece of its foreign policy[10]. The Austrian resistance to the newest sanctions package – as well as the initial veto of Cyprus to the first sanctions package which had been used out of national interest – was eventually overcome. Importantly, sanctions also serve as a signal to the EU’s own population and other authoritarian regimes in the world that the normative aspect of the EU’s foreign policy is still present.

The sanctions’ potential to push the regime in Belarus to stop the repressions – let alone to hold new elections – is very doubtful in the current circumstances. Positive engagement with Belarusian citizens at any level possible remains crucial and needs to be stepped up. For example, working towards the abolition of the visa regime for Belarusians entering the EU would be a meaningful sign of support to the society. The economic decline due to sectoral sanctions will surely be utilized by the regime to blame the West for Belarus’ problems. It may make Belarusians skeptical about the EU’s intentions. Visa liberalization, on the other hand, would highlight that the EU supports the citizens but opposes the political regime in the country. Ultimately, however unlikely it seems today, efforts to get Russia onboard for a mediation process in Belarus should not be abandoned. Along with that, the EU – and the West more broadly – should keep separate its policies towards Russia and Belarus[11].

[1] Official Journal of the European Union L 219 21.6.2021 p. 1-103. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=OJ:L:2021:219I:FULL&from=EN

[2] Niklas Helwig, Juha Jokela, Clara Portela (eds.), 2020. Sharpening EU sanctions policy for a geopolitical era.

[3] Clara Portela (2011). ‘The European Union and Belarus: Sanctions and

partnership?‘ Comparative European Politics (9:4/5).

[4] Mikkel Sejersen (2019). ‘Democratic sanctions meet black knight support:

revisiting the Belarusian case’. Democratization (26:3).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Clara Portela (2011). ‘The European Union and Belarus: Sanctions and

partnership?‘ Comparative European Politics (9:4/5).

[7] Euroradio Live 20.08.2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j1Vlldd60bU

[8] ibid.

[9] EU Commission, 2021. The European Union outlines a €3 billion economic support package to a future democratic Belarus. [online] Available at <https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_2685> [Accessed 21 June 2021].

[10] Niklas Helwig, Juha Jokela, Clara Portela (eds.), 2020. Sharpening EU sanctions policy for a geopolitical era.

[11]Joanna Hosa and Pavel Slunkin (26 May 2021). ‘After the Pratasevich arrest: Four key steps for the EU on Belarus’. European Council on Foreign Relations.

https://ecfr.eu/article/after-the-pratasevich-arrest-four-key-steps-for-the-eu-on-belarus/

 

This blog was originally published on 24 June 2021 by the International Institute for Peace, iipvienna.com

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