Belarus protests: How can the EU promote its values in “Europe’s last dictatorship”?

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Belarus protests: How can the EU promote its values in “Europe's last dictatorship”?
Pre-electoral rally in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanoŭskaya and the joint campaign headquarters. 30 July 2020, Minsk, Belarus. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Europe’s last dictator” is facing the greatest challenge he has ever experienced during his 26-year rule, and has responded with an iron fist. The Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko pushed his original main opponents Viktar Babaryka, Valery Tsepkalo and Siarhei Tsikhanouski out of the race well before the presidential election on Sunday 9 August, and then made sure the preliminary results indicated an unsurprising 80% of the vote for the incumbent.

Protests demanding free and fair elections erupted across the country, but were met with violent repression and Internet shutdowns. The main opposition candidate left on the ballot, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who had held impressive rallies before election day, fled the country to Lithuania on 11 August. Official figures suggest almost 7,000 demonstrators have been detained since election day, some of whom have since been freed. Graphic pictures of beaten detainees spread online, and Amnesty International accuses Belarus of “widespread torture”.

In short, the grim reality of a dictatorship is on full display, in a country that shares 1,250 kilometres of land border with the EU. With Lukashenko’s reign suffering a blow and some even hoping for an end to the regime, what are the EU’s options for promoting democratic values in Belarus?

Walking a tightrope between Europe and Russia

As expected, European actors expressed their dismay at the conduct of Belarusian authorities, with EU Commissioners Josep Borrell and Oliver Várhelyi quickly calling for votes to be accurately counted and for the real election results to be published. The EU has long upheld restrictions and sanctions against Belarus. Current measures include an arms embargo, and export of tools used for internal repression is also forbidden. The EU had sanctions on 170 Belarusian individuals, including Lukashenko himself, until it lifted them in 2016 as a reward for the relative lack of repression during the 2015 election. However, it continues to enforce travel bans and asset freezes on four Belarusians.

In the aftermath of the more brutal 2020 election, the EU is set to introduce new sanctions. On Friday 14 August, the 27 member states’ foreign ministers agreed on sanctioning individuals responsible for “violence, repression and the falsification of election results”, but a precise list of individuals was not yet agreed. Other review of EU–Belarus relations is also underway, with ideas on the table including increased support for civil society and independent media, and increased student mobility.

A brutal despot can only ever enjoy cool relations with the EU, but Lukashenko has also had his problems with Russia. In the recent years, the Belarusian government has shown concern over Russia’s tightening grip over the country. A major source of discord in the past couple of years has been Belarus’s wariness towards Russian plans for deeper integration between both countries under the auspices of the “Union State” created by a 1999 treaty. Over the years, pundits have even speculated about the possibility of Russia invading Belarus, such as during the large-scale Zapad military exercise in 2017.

A new diplomatic incident – whether it was real or staged – unfolded immediately before the elections, as Belarus arrested 33 Russians near Minsk, accusing them of being mercenaries prepared to stoke unrest. On the other hand, Russia is still Lukashenko’s most important partner, and counts as an ally rather than as an enemy. The Russian ruler Vladimir Putin was quick to congratulate Lukashenko as the victor of Sunday’s election, and the two presidents are well-known for playing ice hockey together at times. Putin and Lukashenko have had their disagreements, but for Moscow, a familiar strongman is a much safer option than a democratically elected leader who might pursue a pro-European course and receive a warmer welcome from European leaders.

What’s next for Belarus?

So far, events in Belarus have followed a predictable storyline: the dictator rigs the election, people protest, protesters get brutalised. The million-dollar (or, rather, the million-euro) question is what will happen next.

As protesters were building barricades in the streets of Minsk, comparisons were drawn to the 2014 ‘Euromaidan’ protests, which led to the ousting of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The first reason why such direct comparisons are hardly apt is that, at least at this stage, the protests lack a demand for deeper European cooperation, and instead remain focused on arranging real elections and freeing political prisoners.

Secondly, getting rid of Lukashenko won’t be as easy as bringing down Yanukovych was. Belarusian civil society has been carefully dismantled during the past 26 years, and a lot hinges on whether the police and military will remain obedient to Lukashenko. Video clips of officers destroying their uniforms or joining the protests circulate across social media, but at least so far, the security forces have proven perfectly prepared for inflicting violence against the people. Demonstrators communicating via Telegram and the OMON special police forces are competing to control the streets, but at the same time, wresting concessions from Lukashenko requires more than just demonstrations.

In an encouraging sign, strike actions spread across the country towards the end of the week, while a number of state TV presenters have also announced their resignations. However, the lack of an established parliamentary opposition or a tradition of independent-minded oligarchs makes matters complicated for the opposition movement, and so far the protests have been lacking in support from the elite or high-ranking figures in the security apparatus. Forcing Lukashenko out would amount to a popular revolution – the force of the masses overturning an entire state machinery that is stacked up against the movement.

Already before the election saga, Lukashenko’s response to the coronavirus – denialism mixed with encouraging people to use folksy home remedies – had damaged his popularity among the wider public. Besides the botched health crisis, Belarus and its economy are vulnerable to Lukashenko’s deteriorating relations with Russia. Earlier this year, Russia deployed its traditional tactic of pressuring a neighbour with oil and gas exports, cutting its subsidies for Belarus and momentarily even halting the oil supplies altogether. The Belarusian energy supply, and more broadly its economy, is highly dependent on Russia: around 80% of Belarus’s energy is sourced from Russia, while Russia accounts for nearly 40% of Belarusian exports and some 60% of imports.

Even if the current protests were not enough to bring Lukashenko down, the combination of unprecedentedly mobilised domestic resistance, economic woes and troublesome foreign relations will certainly weaken his position. In any event, being able to capitalise on the situation to promote democratic values in Belarus will require a delicate balancing act from the EU.

Will the EU be sidelined in its own backyard – again?

Even if Minsk hasn’t got its own Euromaidan yet, there is a risk that Belarus will end up provoking other comparisons to Ukraine. The EU’s institutions and Europe more broadly were accused of a toothless response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Belarus could be an opportunity for the EU to show that it is a meaningful player in Eastern Europe, and that Russia cannot simply do what it wants. This, however, won’t be easy. To pull off this balancing act, the EU would have to improve fundamental rights in Belarus all the while warding off Russian interference. This task will be the same, regardless of whether Lukashenko clings on to power or a new election is organised.

If Lukashenko survives, put him to a test

If the dictatorship survives, a weakened Lukashenko may be an easy target for further Russian pressure, especially if the Western world is distracted in the autumn by a second wave of the coronavirus and by the American presidential election. Given Belarus’s economic dependence on Russia, and Russia’s preparedness for hybrid and military operations, Russia has a much stronger set of carrots and sticks to offer Belarus than what the EU can hope for.

The EU’s foreign policy power is not traditionally based on brute force, but on economic strength and on a coherent set of values. The Belarusian regime is not interested in the EU’s values, and won’t easily make concessions to opposition activists. But what the EU and Lukashenko do hold a mutual interest in is Belarusian state sovereignty. Lukashenko has aimed to improve his relations with the West precisely in order to find alternatives to Russia in his foreign policy. From a Western perspective, although Lukashenko is hardly palatable to Europe, he is a better option than a direct subjugation of Belarus under Russian rule.

The EU is set to adopt new sanctions on Belarus in any case. However, in the event of renewed Russian demands on a more integrated “Union State”, European diplomacy could further test Lukashenko on whether he cares more about Belarusian sovereignty, or about keeping the country’s uncompromisingly autocratic model intact.

Namely, Europe could threaten Lukashenko with new restrictions and sanctions, which would throw the country even further into Russia’s arms, unless he frees political prisoners and offers new liberties for the civil society and for independent media. Beyond sanctions for individuals, other measures could include expelling Belarusian ambassadors from EU countries, or investment bans in sectors of the Belarusian economy. If Lukashenko agrees to reforms, the EU could conversely offer new rewards, and help him with his quest of rebalancing his foreign policy. If successful, the strategy could result in a gradual improvement of the political situation in Belarus, achieved without compromising regional stability too much – in other words, a pragmatic deal with the devil.

A more assertive option would be for the EU to place tougher demands on Lukashenko, such as holding a new election. However, tilting the balance too far brings with it the risk of Russian backlash, or Lukashenko himself refusing to engage with the EU.

When Lukashenko is gone, the EU must step up

And what if Lukashenko were to lose his grip on power? Sadly, the risk of Russian intervention seems even more likely in the scenario where Belarus does manage to elect a new leader, or ends up in a power vacuum. In the event that the Belarusian opposition movement achieves a breakthrough with its demands, decisive action from Europe will be needed to mediate the situation. Guaranteeing that a legitimate government can be elected and then go about its business without foreign interference should be a top priority for European actors.

After the government changed hands in Ukraine in 2014, European leaders could do little in response as Russia annexed Crimea in a dubious referendum, and Russian-backed separatists sparked a violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine. A Belarus after Lukashenko would be a chance for Europe to show that it has learned its lessons – Russia managing to once more generate chaos to achieve its immediate objectives and then freezing the situation would scarcely be an acceptable outcome.

In the six years since 2014, European countries have made no momentous leaps in achieving an effective, common foreign policy which would enable the EU (as opposed to individual member states) to face off with Putin’s Russia as an equal. Yet strengthening the EU’s ability to act in world politics seems essential if Europe is to manage any future Belarusian crisis better than it has done in Ukraine.

So here’s one question for commentators to consider: which will happen first – a big step forward in developing the EU’s common foreign policy, or Belarus’s transition towards democracy? The answer might determine how prepared Europe is to act once Lukashenko has finally run his course.

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