Belarus’ leader goes rogue

It has been almost a year since the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, the violent aftermath of which generated wide outrage and condemnation around the globe. Back then, a decisive response was promised to tame the regime’s aggression and force it to change its behaviour. However, not only did Alexander Lukashenko remain in power, but he evidently got even more emboldened to crush any remaining voices of dissent. 

Now Belarus has returned into the spotlight following an outlandish hijacking operation of a passenger plane bound to Vilnius from Greece and a blatant kidnapping act resulting in the detention of Roman Pratasevich, the opposition activist and blogger, at Minsk airport. This unprecedented situation on the European continent has caused another wave of outrage in the world’s capitals. 

There have been calls to investigate the incident, demands for Minsk to release the detained Pratasevich, as well as suggestions to impose new sanctions and flight restrictions on Belarus. Yet Euro-Atlantic countries still appear unwilling to learn anything from the previous summer or the many years of their hesitancy to curtail aggressive regimes in Europe.

Since August 2020, Belarus has witnessed mass protests against Lukashenko, violence against civilians and countless detentions as the regime sought to cling on to power. Systemically applied tactics have ranged from the forced closure of opposition websites to home and office searches, as well as ongoing detentions of opposition figures. All of which, of course, has been happening simultaneously as the Euro-Atlantic democracies applied symbolic sanctions on the regime and its cronies. 

The imposed sanctions aim to motivate the regime to rethink its behaviour and change tack. However, those sanctions have not curtailed Lukashenko, but served to embolden him – a risk the neighbouring countries of Belarus have warned of many times before. Not only did his regime intensify its operations against the political opposition in Belarus, but it also decided that it was the right time to intercept a commercial aeroplane with a fighter jet in order to extract one or two passengers it does not agree with.

Therefore, the recent incident leads to only one conclusion: this time, the response must be different. Both the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU) have already taken action to chastise the regime in Minsk. But Euro-Atlantic countries need to go further. They ought to force Lukashenko to back down and, moreover, agree to conduct a new round of democratic presidential elections – which Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main leader of Belarus’ opposition, has been actively advocating for a while.

Firstly, the UK and EU should admit that declarations and symbolic sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime simply do not work. Secondly, they should apply a fresh round of sanctions to ensure that a wider number of key individuals around Lukashenko, as well as the financial system more generally, are squeezed enough to weaken support among his inner circle to isolate his regime and to compel Lukashenko to look for a way out.

In addition, Euro-Atlantic countries’ support for Tsikhanouskaya as a Belarussian political figure, with whom the diplomatic world is already meeting and negotiating, should be extended with financial and practical support for other opposition channels. For example, Belarus’ remaining free press outlets should be assisted, so they could continuously counteract the narratives projected by Lukashenko’s regime. 

Finally, the Euro-Atlantic democracies should be more realistic: the grotesque adventures of Lukashenko’s dictatorship would not be possible without political and financial backing from Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. Therefore, Lukashenko cannot be dealt with in isolation. Consequently, the UK should form a coalition of European countries – including Poland and the Baltic and Nordic states – that are willing to pioneer a significantly more robust approach to undermine the Kremlin. The time has come to ramp-up pressure on Germany until it withdraws its support for the NordStream II pipeline. Meanwhile, Russia’s access to financial markets and the international payments system should be curtailed to force the Kremlin to re-evaluate its destabilising policies, particularly in Belarus.

The dramatic incident above the skies in Belarus has revealed the limitations of symbolic sanctions and declaratory diplomacy. The European approach towards Europe’s remaining dictatorships has been largely, if not entirely, ineffective – neither Minsk, nor Moscow, have been brought to heel. Without a firmer and more realistic approach, the UK and EU will end up surrounded by a ring of rogue states willing to partake in increasingly reckless and inappropriate actions.

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė is Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy.

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