The EU is about to lift its economic sanctions on Belarus for a period of four months. This presumes that Sunday’s elections in Belarus come off without any government crackdown on dissent. The move is in response to the Belarus government releasing half a dozen political prisoners in August and to hosting the peace talks on Ukraine. Belarus is seeking relief from an economic recession and has been shaken by the war between Kyiv and Moscow. The thaw may have come to Minsk.
For the past 21 years, since independence from the USSR, Belarus has been the last bastion of Stalinism in Europe. President Alexander Lukashenko has been “elected” in unbelievably big landslides and the security service goes by the initials KGB. President Lukashenko has a habit of saying things that a less secure dictator might regret, as in 1995, “The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from ruins thanks to firm authority and not everything connected with that well-known figure Hitler was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and attained its peak under Hitler.”
Reuters is reporting, “Diplomats say the EU’s list of around 140 individuals will be suspended from the end of October until the end of February, allowing those in question to move their money around and travel again. An arms embargo will remain.
“However, the European Union will keep the sanctions under review. The suspensions could be allowed to expire if Belarus is seen as committing fresh rights abuses.”
This is clearly a case of two sides discovering that a third party, Russia, poses a bigger problem for each of them than does the other. Mr. Putin’s Russia has demonstrated that any near neighbor that does not conform to its policy wishes can and will be pressured and even attacked, e.g., Ukraine. The effectiveness of Mr. Lukashenko’s cronyism is undermined by the sanctions on his cronies, and he may want to bolster local support at the expense of Moscow.
Mr. Lukashenko has also pushed Mr. Putin away a bit, stating that Belarus does not need a Russian airbase on its territory, a base Moscow is keen to build. Yet, in doing so, he was his usual cagey self. “We don’t need a base today,” Mr. Lukashenko was quoted as saying by Belarusian media on Tuesday. “I hear shrieks from the opposition about the deployment of a Russian air base. I don’t know anything about it. We need planes – not bases. We have our excellent pilots… Why should I allow in planes and pilots from other countries?”
As for the EU, Reuters’ Robin Emmott observed, “The lifting of sanctions could mark a new phase in EU diplomacy that is less about preaching EU values and more about finding partners, following the failure of its European Neighborhood Policy launched in 2003. The policy has not stabilized or democratized the EU’s surroundings.” Under economic pressure and decline, new growth made possible by closer EU ties would be exactly what Minsk and Brussels need.
Of course, the 4-month suspension of sanctions will likely prove permanent. The individuals under sanction will be able to arrange all of their financial affairs, do the traveling they want and need to do, and enjoy a furlough from their blacklisting. They can arrange their affairs so that the sanctions, when reimposed, have little effect on them. There will be little point to reimposing them except perhaps to save face.
That said, Belarus cannot continue as a dictatorship forever. It can last decades, however. If Mr. Lukashenko is seeking a way to balance Moscow’s influence, the EU would be foolish to ignore the potential opening. As things stand, the EU has very little influence over Belarus, but if it were able to deepen relations, it would create many new carrots and sticks that could be of use in bringing Belarus into the 21st century.