Can sanctions dislodge Alexander Lukashenko?

On 25th May, following a European Union (EU) summit in Brussels that saw all EU leaders vow to impose new sanctions on Belarus following the hijacking of Flight FR4698, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, explained to the press that ‘we are at the limit of what sanctions policies can achieve.’

The French president’s remarks merit some reflection. For one, they betray a misunderstanding of what can be realistically expected of sanctions, and thus their value. For another, despite the promise for more sanctions against Belarus, serious sanction fatigue appears to be setting in. From the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) perspective, such fatigue is worrisome: it may not only indicate a lack of resolve, especially if sanctions are the main tool used against Belarus’ regime, but also dilute their overall effectiveness.

To be sure, Macron acknowledged that sanctions are frequently chosen because some alternatives are simply too costly to bear. That is not the only reason why sanctions are an important policy tool, however. As the UK, the United States (US), Canada, and the EU ponder their response to the hijacking of Flight FR4698, having a thorough grasp of what sanctions can, and cannot, achieve is vital.

Britain has indicated that Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Minsk is not legitimate. Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, issued a statement shortly after the rigged elections last August, declaring that ‘the UK does not accept the results.’ The British government then called for fresh presidential elections in Belarus in November, before implying that it viewed Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of the Belarus opposition, as Lukashenko’s legitimate successor. The UK, and other like-minded states like Canada, would like to see a democratic political transition in Belarus, and a freer and more open political system.

But how might democratisation begin in Belarus? More to the point, how do authoritarian regimes like Lukashenka’s fall? The most common and romantic answer is that such regimes buckle under the pressure of mass demonstrations. On the face of it, the Soviet bloc in 1989 lends credence to this view: large-scale protests in capitals behind the Iron Curtain seemed to have led to those communist regimes to finally admit to the failure of their socio-economic system and allow members of the opposition to enter government.

However, on closer inspection, social movements seldom lead to the collapse of authoritarian regimes of their own volition. Most political transitions are the result of palace coups and bargaining within the elite class, as when key insiders decide to defect to the opposition and help overthrow the autocratic system they used to support. The swell of popular opposition in unseating communist regimes was more exceptional than normal. Even so, intra-elite discord – with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as the primary protagonists – is ultimately what led to the collapse of communist rule in Moscow.

Understanding what accounts for authoritarian failure, more generally, provides clues about what to do about Lukashenko’s regime. The demonstrations that broke out when authorities released the fraudulent presidential election results have truly been impressive in scale. The risks taken by protestors are laudable, especially given the regime’s quick recourse to wanton force and torture. Tsikhanouskaya has been adept in generating support abroad among foreign leaders and members of the Belarusian diaspora. 

But the political opposition can only do so much: large, repeated protests are necessary for conveying resolve in the face of Lukashenko’s brutality and intimidation, but they have so far proven insufficient in dislodging him from power.

After all, Lukashenko anticipated ahead of last year’s presidential elections that he was in for a fight. He shuffled ostensibly moderates out of key cabinet positions and brought in their stead loyalists. He elevated individuals with experience in Belarusian internal security to higher positions. He was, in other words, circling the wagons. The strategy paid off: the regime faced its deepest existential crisis last summer and survived without a major defection in the army or in the security services. 

This is where enhanced punitive sanctions can play an important role, albeit a limited one. Though the structural conditions for political dislocation à la 1989 do not currently exist in Belarus, it may be possible to impose sanctions to facilitate political change over the medium to long term. This is because sanctions do not just punish transgressive behavior or enforce redlines and norms. They have a strategic purpose beyond simply coercing a government to do something it would not otherwise do. By targeting key individuals, sanctions can widen dissension within the presidential palace, shift the balance of power between elites, and cause friction from within. The results of such sanctions will not be immediate. With time, hopefully, loyalists will chafe under the financial pressure and look for respite.

The temporal dimension cannot be underestimated. Sanctions are often imposed on the hardest cases when those targeted have accepted they will bear certain costs for their actions for an extended period. Deadlock is likely to arise, at least in the short and medium term. Moreover, sanctioned states are not inanimate objects: they sometimes can make up for loss trade elsewhere. Belarus could readily look to a Russia that would only be too willing to step in and give loans that offer temporary relief (appealing to a stronger power is something the Soviets could not do). That said, there may be variability among regime insiders as to their sensitivity and endurance. This variability in turn can be exploited to the advantage of the political opposition. 

As such, sanctions should be focused on depriving the regime of much needed hard currency. It may not be enough to impose travel bans and asset freezes on scores of individuals that are part of the inner circle of power. Hitting key sectors of the economy (i.e. petrochemicals) which deprive Lukashenko’s regime of its ability to fill its coffers, to line insiders’ pockets, and, importantly, to fund violent oppression, will be key. 

Sanctions, however, seldom work alone and should only form one element of geostrategy. If used in isolation, as Macron’s remarks erroneously suggest they are, they can inadvertently signal a lack of dedication to the cause that they purportedly serve. 

Regarding Belarus, economic sanctions ought to be coupled with meaningful support for President-elect Tsikhanouskaya and the Belarusian diaspora. The EU’s proposal of providing funds that will help Belarus go about a democratic transition is an important carrot, one that the UK and other free and open countries should support. Expelling Lukashenko’s suspected intelligence officers from Belarusian embassies and consulates would also deprive the regime of its ability to monitor the opposition among diaspora groups. Other tools can include providing material support to democracy activists and Belarusian media groups fighting against Lukashenko’s disinformation machine.

Even so, results cannot be expected overnight. After all, to reinvoke the experience of the Soviet bloc, the US imposed sanctions on Poland after General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime imposed martial law in December 1981. These sanctions lasted until early 1987, but were complemented by other, though limited, forms of support for the Solidarity movement. But, by that time, the regime was on its last legs. Two years later, in 1989, it finally collapsed. Historians can debate what causal impact the sanctions had – whether it imposed sufficient costs and caused friction within the elite – but it is clear that internal and external pressures accumulated over time to force meaningful political change. The same may very well be the case for Lukashenko.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is an Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also an Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

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