Months long protests lead to escalation
In the EaP March report on the situation in Belarus, the high tensions and widespread dissatisfaction in the general population of Belarus was pointed out. Since then the situation grew more complicated and explosive, culminating in the internationally reported Freedom Day protest on March, 25th. Those gatherings, happening not only in Minsk but all over the country on the occasion of the Belarusian Day of Independence, were largely held as a continuation of the already months long protests against the economic instability of the country and especially the so called parasite tax. Yet, while the previous meetings have been mostly peaceful and tolerated by the authorities, on March 25th the regime decided to crack down. Hundreds of people, both young adults and seniors, have been detained or beaten. Gruesome pictures and videos spread through social media and have been widely reported by western media.
A European response?
Following the sudden turn of the developments, some have called upon the EU to stop its financial support for Belarus or even reinstate sanctions against the regime, which have been lifted as recently as 2016. At the same time opposition parties, whose members have played a vital role in the protests, have received a warning letter of the ministry of justice of Belarus. Consequently, the European Parliament discussed the recent events on April, 6th and accepted a motion for a resolution, condemning the events. However, consensus on the future relationship with Belarus is not reached yet.
Sanctions or engagement – that’s the choice
The question, whether the EU should show strength against the regime or if further engagement and good will is the path forward, is highly discussed at the moment.
The argument for a tougher stance seems obvious: The EU should not tolerate such a deterioration of human rights in its direct neighbourhood and should not support the regime responsible for it, if not for ethical reasons, then at least to defend its reputation. The government of Belarus should be sanctioned until it changes its behaviour.
However, it is not clear, if this actually would work out, with at least one major institute claiming the exact opposite. In fact the major flaw in the pro-sanctions approach is the omission of Russia’s influence on Belarus. Just as Ukraine before the Euromaidan, Belarus is attempting to balance to influence of both Russia and the EU with one difference: President Lukashenka has been doing that already for over 20 years and is sometimes accredited to be Europe’s “ultimate deal maker”. Hence an inflexible EU would just push Belarus into the arms of Putin, completely failing at its aim of helping the Belarusian people. Following this logic the EU should actually intensify the cooperation with Belarus, especially as the later is still suffering from a recession and does need investment, which in turn would also benefit the people. Carnegie Europe goes so far as to present a whole list of possible actions, which are supposed to strengthen the EU’s position in Belarus. Most importantly seems to be the urgent, unequivocal and tangible support for students and young adults, who are as so often the breeding grounds of any liberal society.
Mr. Lukashenka on top of the hill
Finally, history should not be forgotten, as we have been here before already. In spite of Lukashenka’s trumpesque behaviour, one should not forget that he has perfected the game of playing the EU against Russia over the course of his presidency. In fact the crackdown and his recent, at times vulgar escapades against the alleged misbehaviour of russian officials (not Putin) towards Belarus regarding its gas debt may be part of a bigger plan. Just days ago Russia has approved a billion dollar loan for Belarus under so called “good conditions”, which Belarus urgently needs in order to pay of its gas debt of around 750 million to Russia. While the specifics and consequences of this deal may be discussed, it shows that Lukashenka understands to play both of his neighbours.
The EU can learn from its past approaches, avoid traps and should act with the interest of the Belarusian people, especially its youth, in mind.
Filipp Trigub, 14.04.17