As Belarus’s illegitimate leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, meets Vladimir Putin in Sochi, the Belarusian people are in danger of losing their own state. The Lukashenka regime, an intensifying economic crisis, and near-total dependence on an expansionist Russia have eroded the nation’s sovereignty. It may be arriving at the point of no return. Belarusians can only turn to their European friends and allies for help – yet solidarity is in short supply. European leaders should therefore revisit their statements from the summer of 2020 before considering visa sanctions against all Belarusians.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, European policymakers tended to treat Belarus as a dual international actor, making a clear division between ‘regime’ and ‘people’. But the international approach to Belarus is slowly but surely returning to one in which ‘Belarus is equal to Lukashenka’ – as it was in many quarters before the widespread protests at the rigged 2020 election. Western experts and politicians are calling for Belarusians to “clean house” or “revolt” to deserve a different attitude. And, within the European Union, the idea of punishing the citizens of Belarus by banning them from entering the Schengen zone or suspending the issue of residence permits is receiving more and more support.
But Belarusians have already made their feelings about Lukashenka abundantly clear. Just two years ago, hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters surrounded his palace, demanding his immediate resignation. They did not break the law, did not fight with the police, did not loot, and even took off their shoes before standing on public benches. Even if the regime did not fall immediately, an end to decades of brutal authoritarianism seemed close. Back then, European leaders expressed in unison words of support for the Belarusian people. Belarus’s pro-democracy leaders enjoyed platforms in media all over Europe. And the foreign press wrote with admiration about the country’s “peaceful revolution”.
Today, even if Europeans’ perceptions have changed, millions of Belarusians feel the same as they did in 2020. Some have been killed, thousands imprisoned, hundreds of thousands forced to leave, and millions silenced. But 92 per cent of Belarusians who were victims of repression during or after the uprising do not regret their participation. They say that, if they could go back, they “would do the same” or “be even more active”. Many of these people lost their jobs and were imprisoned and tortured. Those fortunate enough to be released or avoid arrest had to flee Belarus and have not seen their relatives for two years. Some have children, parents, or spouses in prison. Now, the regime wants to expropriate their property and deprive them of their citizenship. Despite all of this, they “would do the same”.
Furthermore, the attitude towards Putin’s war in Belarus is resoundingly negative, with only 5 per cent in favour of their country participating on the side of Russia. Indeed, the general picture of public sympathies on the war differs little from the opinion of citizens in Moldova – an EU candidate country. This is despite the fact that Lukashenka’s propaganda machine is working flat out; merely viewing independent media is a criminal offence; and the prison sentence for anti-war comments on social networks can be up to seven years. These are no empty threats: since the beginning of the war, more than 1,500 people have been arrested in Belarus for anti-war actions.
Lukashenka’s complicity with the Kremlin is also causing Belarusians financial hardship, since the country’s economy is under severe strain from the Western-led sanctions regime. Moreover, Belarus has lost the Ukrainian market, which previously accounted for about 13 per cent of its total exports. According to Belarusian authorities’ estimates, losses from sanctions could reach up to $18 billion. Belarus’s GDP has already fallen by more than 10 per cent (compared to the same period in 2021). The IT sector, which used to be one of the main growth drivers of the Belarusian economy, is in crisis. For example, in the first six months of 2022, the outflow of specialists from this area amounted to 10,000 people. The sector contracted by 8 per cent in July.
More importantly, however, Belarus’s economic dependence on Russia is becoming structural. Moscow has become the only source of credit support for Minsk, and the main market for Belarusian goods that fall under Western sanctions. Belarusian exports to Russia, in turn, have grown to more than 30 per cent. Potash exports, which previously passed through the ports of the Baltic countries, are now redirected to Russian ports. This brings Moscow critical economic control over Belarus – and provides Russia with endless “loyalty enforcement” mechanisms that will continue even after Putin and Lukashenka have gone.
Europeans should therefore bear in mind that Belarusian citizens do not have a legitimate government to effectively protect their interests and rights. They do not have weapons and military equipment to wrest their country from the clutches of Russian troops and security forces loyal to Lukashenka. And, ultimately, they do not even have a territory from which they can prepare for revolution. Not to mention the economic crisis and lack of funding for any of this.
Lukashenka, on the other hand, has his own government, his own army, and his own finances. He also has Putin, who helped him cling onto his position during the hot days of the revolution. Putin’s support was not merely economic, financial, and political. It also included the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) helping the Belarusian KGB to quell the unrest, identify dissidents and opposition sympathisers, and pre-emptively intimidate or imprison them. This assistance did not come for free: Putin exchanged it for Lukashenka’s complete political loyalty – not only Belarus staying in Russia’s orbit and terminating its previous “multi-vector” foreign policy approaches, but also supporting the Kremlin’s neo-imperial agenda in the post-Soviet space and relinquishing Belarus’s independence.
Lukashenka’s illegitimate regime continues to violate human rights and international laws. It is also complicit in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, placing Belarusians on the verge of losing their state. The EU should not punish Belarus’s long-suffering citizens for this. Rather, it should fulfil the promises it made to the Belarusian people in 2020. This could both hasten the removal of Lukashenka and undermine Putin.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.