oDR: Opinion

Does the Ryanair incident give Belarus’s opposition the leverage it needs?

It seemed as if Lukashenka had successfully repressed last year’s protest movement. Now, his regime is seen as an international problem

Natallia Vasilevich
29 May 2021, 9.36am
Alyaksandr Lukashenka
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Image: President of Belarus

More than 400 political prisoners and 30,000 people arrested: these are the results of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s brutal response to the protests that started in Belarus last year.

Today, you can get fined for hanging up socks, umbrellas or linen if they carry the red and white national colours used by the Belaursian opposition. Sweets wrapped in red-white-red packaging have even been removed from shops.

At the end of last year, it seemed as if the Belarusian authorities had successfully suppressed the protests. By winter, the country’s nascent democratic movement no longer had the strength to continue the peaceful demonstrations that had taken place between August and October. Instead, international politics became the main arena of contest.

Today, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’ opposition leader-in-exile, is trying to isolate the regime diplomatically. She and her team are busy visiting European capitals and meeting with US and Canadian representatives, lobbying for measures that will put pressure on Lukashenka’s government.

Despite the scale of domestic repression, however, sanctions have been introduced slowly and selectively. For the Belarusian opposition, international expressions of “deep concern” have long become an ironic meme.

“The EU never reacts quickly,” said Franak Viačorka, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya. “The adoption of sanctions, like the approval of any diplomatic initiative, takes a long time. It will take several months for European structures to do this, and a few more months until these measures take effect and have some effect.”

Slow progress

The EU’s response so far, which has been to introduce targeted sanctions against Lukashenka and 87 other government figures, as well as seven organisations, has been relatively soft.

After the violence and repression that accompanied elections in 2010, for instance, the bloc placed sanctions on 158 people. Denis Melyantsov, a political scientist who has taken part in “normalisation” efforts between Belarus and the EU in recent years, suggests that coronavirus, and the “Russian factor” may have played a role in softening the international response, despite the fact that repression this time is greater.

This time around, European governments and institutions have chosen a more positive agenda, by providing moral support to the Belarusian democratic movement, receiving Tsikhanouskaya at the highest level, presenting awards to the country’s democratic leaders, and supporting opposition organisers based abroad.

Two organisations that work with Tsikhanouskya, the Foundation for Cultural Solidarity and the Sports Solidarity Fund, have beeen trying to assign a cost to the Belarusian state’s actions – such as preventing pro-regime figures from participating in Eurovision and the relocation of the Ice Hockey World Championship from Minsk to Riga.

To help strike a balance, opposition leaders have tried to seek consent for their tactics

Work to isolate Belarus is under way in several other areas, including the international trade union movement and church relations. But the task for the Belarusian opposition is a difficult one, since it needs to find measures that will hurt the regime while minimising the impact on ordinary citizens.

To help strike a balance, opposition leaders have tried to seek consent for their tactics. In December, for example, Tsikhanouskaya’s office conducted a poll of around 400,000 people on the prospect of disconnecting Belarus from the SWIFT international payment system. The study was accompanied by a detailed explanation of both the effectiveness of this action and its risks. When only 64% said they would be happy with the move, Tsikhanouskaya’s office halted its lobbying efforts.

Change of course

Since 23 May, when Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to divert course and land in Minsk, the situation has changed dramatically. After the combination of deceit and force that allowed Belarus to arrest two passengers, the opposition blogger Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, it suddenly appears that the EU can act quickly.

EU officials are now preparing a whole package of sectoral economic sanctions. These will hurt citizens as well as the regime, of course. But as Financial Times economic analyst Martin Sandbu has noted, there are ways to make up for this. The EU is making an aid package worth €3bn (5% of Belarusian GDP) available on the condition that the country becomes democratic. There are also plans for an assistance programme that will run during the period of sanctions.

Now, when Lukashenka is cornered by the West, is the time to check whether Russia, indeed, seeks a closer relationship with Belarus. On 28 May, Vladimir Putin and Lukashenka held a five hour meeting in the Russian resort of Sochi. However, no official statements were made yet upon its results.

The Ryanair incident has brought the Belarus “problem” back to the attention of Western media, although the focus has switched from the protest movement to European security. Lukashenka’s regime, it seems, is no longer only a domestic issue.

For the political forces that were already trying to force the government to negotiate with the opposition, this has given further weight to the argument for sanctions. For those that had distanced themselves from the situation, it has made Belarus impossible to ignore: the authorities’ actions have now affected EU citizens and revealed how unhinged Lukashenka’s government really is.

So far, the Belarusian democratic movement has lacked the leverage it needed to force the regime into dialogue over holding new, free elections, the release of political prisoners, the restoration of the rule of law and an end to political terror. Now, it seems as if they have that leverage. With his thoughtless actions, Lukashenka has shot himself in the foot.

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