How half-hearted sanctions put the future of Belarus at risk

The EU is currently assembling its fifth package of sanctions on Belarus. Here is what European governments and the Belarusian opposition should draw from how things have gone so far.

“March of the national flag”, 10th October 2015 in Minsk
Image by Marco Fieber

The Belarusian opposition had a hard time convincing Western countries to impose economic restrictions on the regime of Alexander Lukashenka – even if the latter’s electoral fraud in August 2020, and the subsequent state terror, fully justified such measures.

Firstly, they had to explain that Belarusians themselves accepted sanctions as the only remaining way to put pressure on the regime. Protests or strikes are practically impossible inside the country. To force Lukashenka to make at least some concessions – a halt to repressions, freeing political prisoners, agreeing to political dialogue, perhaps even new elections – there is not much else left on the table.

Secondly, they had to explain that sanctions would not necessarily push Belarus closer to Russia. Instead, if the sanctions were ‘smart’, they should make Lukashenka a burden that even Vladimir Putin would not want to bear. Such measures would produce divisions within the establishment.

But then came the trickiest part: what if sanctions proved costly to Western business? This has proved an obstacle to assembling a more comprehensive set of restrictions as companies and European leaders worry about the cost to their own economies.

The glass-half-full part of this story is that the West – in particular, the European Union – has never before been so willing to punish “Europe’s last dictator”. Over the past 12 months, the EU has introduced four rounds of sanctions, followed by a set of sectoral restrictions. The novelty of this last package was that it targeted the most profitable areas of Belarus’s exports, such as petroleum products and potash, and restricted the country’s access to the EU’s capital markets.

As of today, a total of 166 persons and 15 entities are subject to the EU’s restrictive measures. A fifth package is currently in the making. The pressure on Minsk is further strengthened by sanctions adopted by other Western powers, from the United States and the United Kingdom to Switzerland and Canada. The American measures seem to be particularly painful to the regime, as they also include secondary sanctions.

But the way in which these countries and the EU frame these measures – mostly as a demonstration of the West’s values-based foreign policy – seems to have reached its limits. Some European companies still rely on supplies from Belarus or operate in the country’s market, and they continue to want their governments to keep the cost of sanctions to the minimum.

This may explain why the current sanctions have been patchy and slow. Stories abound about Belarusian individuals and companies being left off the EU’s lists at the last minute, due to successful lobbying. Even the EU’s sectoral sanctions contain shocking loopholes – they cover only a minor part of Belarus’s exports of potash, and allow the undisturbed export of some petroleum products.

The Belarusian opposition should aim to appeal explicitly to Europe’s economic and strategic interests – and not just to abstract values

From how things have gone so far, there are two important lessons for those fighting for a free Belarus. They should urgently extend their range of interlocutors, talking to Western business as much as to governments and international organisations. And when they are doing this, whoever they are talking to, the Belarusian opposition should aim to build a positive case for doing business with the future Belarus. In other words, they should appeal explicitly to Europe’s economic and strategic interests – and not just to abstract values. This should finally make Europeans listen, for at least three reasons.

Firstly, the notion of “European sovereignty” is preoccupying policymakers in Brussels and in several of the main European capitals as they consider how to navigate shifting global currents. From this perspective, a free Belarus could provide a reliable source of some important products and ingredients that matter strategically. These would include not just wood, petroleum, potash, and potatoes, which perhaps first come to mind when one thinks about Belarus. The country can also help Europe reduce its vulnerabilities in strategic supplies, such as medical supplies, for example: in making drugs and vaccines (some of the active pharmaceutical ingredients for the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine are sourced from Belarus); in producing liquid oxygen for respirators (for which the country’s chemicals industry could be a partner); or in making medical and protective garments (with a textile production capacity already in place). Europeans cannot, and should not, seek self-sufficiency – they need a network of trusted partners instead. 

Secondly, Belarusians could also appeal to the geopolitical logic of developing Europe’s new relational power: to boost its standing vis-à-vis the other great powers and make itself more resilient against external coercion. Access to the entire Eurasian Economic Union has, so far, been one of the powerful reasons behind European business’s interest in the Belarusian market. Policymakers should capitalise on this and develop the potential for more extensive networks of influence. If the EU is serious about developing an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, then it cannot afford to neglect a country that not only has excellent highways but is also located on a direct line between Berlin and Moscow, eventually Beijing.

And, finally, when the Belarusian opposition talks to business, it should appeal to the logic of nearshoring that is increasingly seen as one of key ways to ensure resilience of supplies. After the shock of covid-19, several European companies have already shortened their value chains, replacing imports from China or India with those from countries closer home. The systemic rivalry between China and the US is expected to further encourage this trend. If the EU were to ramp up sanctions yet further with the eventual promise of a new stable and reliable partner just across its eastern border, Belarus would have a lot to offer. It is close. It can produce many basic products whose supplies have recently suffered bottlenecks in Europe. And, thanks to a well-educated workforce and existing production capacities, investors would not need to start from scratch.

These arguments should make at least part of European business more interested in Belarus, and more supportive of sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime. And European governments should see these as a proof – and an encouragement – that free Belarus is worth striving for. Their leverage over Minsk admittedly has limits; and sanctions could be partly bypassed thanks to Russia. But this does not mean Europe should not try.

Convincing the West is just half of the challenge for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Pavel Latushka, and their team – but it is a precondition for another step in which they also need to invest in talks with Belarusian business and workers. If they are to go on strike again, they also need to be offered a convincing prospectus, such as attractive business partners and new markets; and not just the uncertainty of a political transition. Perhaps this lack of horizon explains why the call to a general strike failed a year ago.

Currently, half-hearted sanctions may harm the Belarusian economy but not the Lukashenka regime, while the lack of a compelling alternative means people in the country may be reluctant to protest or strike when the next opportunity comes. Carrying on down this path would prematurely, and unjustly, prove the sanctions-sceptics right – to the detriment of not just freedom in Belarus but also Europe’s own economic and strategic interests.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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