When questioning the efficiency of sanctions, one should first ask what the EU’s coercive diplomacy towards Belarus is aiming at. Overall goals remain unclear: Brussels may have a policy stance, member states agreed on minimal “restrictive measures”, but the EU obviously lacks a strategy. Yet sanctions could not openly aim at toppling Lukashenka or imposing regime change for the sake of fulfilling Mr Füle’s vision of a European future for Belarus, not least as not all member states share it. Contrary to many other authoritarian countries, in Belarus there is no civil war, genocide or crime against humanity justifying outside intervention on humanitarian grounds. Such interference would not be legitimate.
Therefore, EU sanctions officially pursue only one goal: improving the situation with human rights and the rule of law in Belarus, with the first priority being the unconditional release and rehabilitation of political prisoners. Sanctions obviously failed to meet this objective so far – in my opinion because, given the regime’s own survival strategies, the sanctions amounted to too little, too late… and were all too often bypassed by EU member states themselves.
Change is thus needed. The EU in its own ranks should seek to reach a consensus on a more ambitious policy, and implement it more coherently.
There is no room for idealism in relations with Minsk: dictatorships do not democratise, they only feign to, in order to prolong their own longevity. This is why I do not believe that the prospect of a normalisation of relations will ever push Lukashenka to voluntarily and genuinely democratise. Easing sanctions before the West’s requests for an unconditional release are fulfilled would amount to trading political prisoners. Political prisoners are against such compromising, which would be not only amoral, but vain and counterproductive. Such a step would show Lukashenka (as well as other dictators around the world) that the EU could give up on its principles. This would further undermine the EU’s reputation as a values-based global actor. If democracies refuse to deal with terrorists and hostage-takers, then they should not deal with Minsk either. Refusing to play Lukashenka’s game means, for example, refraining from sending observers to monitor the predictably undemocratic elections he will stage next September.
We all know that Lukashenka is indifferent to naming and blaming – he even gets along fine with being ignored by the West. Hence the need to target his proxies, acolytes and other “bagmen”, who are liable to feel the pressure more than he does, and could see a pragmatic advantage in complying. However, currently the EU is not offering them attractive enough rewards, especially in comparison to Russian ones.
In the ongoing debate regarding the visa ban list, I agree that the EU should take off the names of people who died, repented or quit their jobs – if any. This would indeed signal that the EU keeps a close eye on developments in Belarus, and might encourage defections. Conversely, in the absence of real improvements, and given that some political prisoners are on the threshold of death, the EU should keep on adding onto the visa ban list the names of the latest human rights offenders.
I belong to those who consider that sanctions have not been efficient enough, or, not efficient yet, and that this should prompt the EU to design a “smarter”, more innovative and comprehensive policy on Belarus. Flexibility is needed, but it should definitely not result in lifting sanctions against millionaires who have been supplying hard currency to Lukashenka’s slush funds for years.
If the goal pursued, besides the liberation of prisoners, is democratisation through regime change, then the retaliatory force of sanctions should on the contrary be increased. A targeted boycott of Belarusian goods could help meet this goal, even if at a cost: the EU would have to compensate for the losses in EU countries that depend on imports from Belarus. Generosity should also be shown towards Belarusians themselves – the most awaited step in this regard being to unilaterally waive Schengen visa fees for all bona fide travellers.
I advocated elsewhere a paradigm shift whereby the EU would open a “third track”, that of a real partnership with Belarus as a country. This is why I do not support some European Parliamentarians’ attempt to take the organisation of the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championships away from Belarus. People should on the contrary be entitled to enjoy the party, take Lukashenka to his word and request for attending visa free. Meanwhile Western leaders should be consistent and snub the event altogether, so that they do not have to shake blood-stained hands.
In other words, I think the EU should toughen its position along the first track (sanctions) and step up its efforts towards civil society (the second track). Yet, there should be room for positive engagement with all those in Belarus, including “red directors” and middle-class bureaucrats, who would prefer to work by EU standards out of respect for the rule of law – a value more widely shared within Belarusian society than “democracy” proper. This supposes identifying civil servants who do not trust Lukashenka anymore, and empowering them to step in as forces of proposals able of catalysing change at home.
Of course, extending a hand to Belarus as a country, without shaking the hand of its current leaders, requires conjuring up policy solution that the EU has yet to achieve. The mission will remain impossible anyway unless a special representative for relations with Belarus is appointed, someone with enough knowledge of the country to talk to Belarusians, and enough authority (and legal leverage) within the EU to coordinate policies along the three tracks in order to reach the goal – whatever that goal may be.
Given that the European Union is not considering the introduction of fully-fledged economic sanctions against Belarus, with the intention of applying pressure on the authorities, do you think the EU should continue to extend the visa ban list and introduce targeted economic sanctions against some Belarusian companies?
Given that there is no consensus in favour of full-fledged economic sanctions, the EU has few other options than stepping up its “targeted” sanctions policy. Key to making them efficient is that EU member states show irreproachable probity at the implementation stage. This means that if a country has to grant a visa to a banned official upon request of an international organisation located on its territory (as France did for Interior Minister Anatol Kuliashou to attend an Interpol meeting last January), then it should seize the opportunity of this visit to take this official to a criminal court.
Judicial pressure against crony businessmen handling Belarusian assets in the EU should also be increased, as is now the case in Austria – but much remains to be done.
As for targeted economic sanctions, I am less convinced of their efficiency for helping set political prisoners free. Yet, provided that they are smart enough, they can contribute to suffocating the regime: if this is their ultimate goal, then EU countries should state it clearly and convince Belarusians that reaching it would make their lives better. This implies mobilising their support for such a policy, so that they come out to the streets and demand that the regime surrenders to outside pressures. “Smart” economic sanctions in that sense would be those that can close down enough companies simultaneously so as to provoke a general strike in Belarus. I don’t see any other way for pushing the regime to the negotiation table with the pro-reform segments of the Belarusian population. Although this should be the preliminary step for a normalisation of relations with the EU.
A more realistic way of “targeting” economic sanctions better is making sure that they are coherently implemented, meaning that EU-based individuals, banks and companies conducting business with counterparts affiliated with Lukashenka’s regime should also be sanctioned! Another condition for success would be that the EU motivates, or constrains – as do the US through their Democracy Acts – third countries to comply with its sanctions policy, taking on board Turkey, Monaco, San Marino or Eastern Partnership countries for example.