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14 August 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:00am

The Belarus crisis is a test for Britain and the EU

Why the spirit of détente that has characterised President Alexander Lukashenko’s relations with the West is over.  

By Ido Vock

The ongoing repression of protesters by the authorities in Belarus has shocked Europe and the world. President Alexander Lukashenko, responding to demonstrations against the brazen extent of his supposed victory in the 9 August election, has cracked down hard against dissent. Hundreds have been injured and thousands detained since Sunday’s vote.

Despite an internet blackout affecting the entire country, videos purportedly showing police beatings of detainees have leaked on opposition Telegram channels. State TV paraded terrified protesters in front of the cameras as they promised “never to seek a revolution again”. Amnesty International says it has collected testimonies from those held in detention centres, which include accounts of “being stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape”.

Lukashenko’s challenger, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to flee to Lithuania after she was detained for several hours by authorities, during which time she recorded a video in which she appears to read from a script disavowing the protests. Increasing numbers of workers are now striking, including those in key sectors of the economy such as oil and tractor manufacturing.

In recent years, a spirit of detente has characterised the West’s approach to Lukashenko. Just this February, Mike Pompeo travelled to Belarus, the first time in 26 years that a US secretary of state has visited the country, on a trip that was widely viewed as an attempt to bring Russia’s closest ally on side. In June Hungary’s Viktor Orbán called for the EU’s remaining sanctions on the former Soviet state to be lifted.

But the brutal suppression of dissent that followed this year’s election is likely to cause a sharp cooling of relations.

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Lithuania, also a former Soviet republic, has so far led EU policy. Its foreign minister, Linas Linkevičius, has taken an activist line since the elections, after his country offered safe haven to Tikhanovskaya and took the lead in coordinating a pan-European response. “All options should be on the table, including possible sanctions. To do nothing is not an option,” Linkevičius told Euronews.

Poland has also been at the forefront of international support for the democratic opposition – an irony for some, who note Poland’s less than stellar record under the Law and Justice party. The nation earlier this week called for a coordinated EU response to the crisis.

EU officials have said that the bloc is likely to reimpose sanctions on Belarus, which were mostly lifted four years ago as the union hailed “improving EU-Belarus relations”. In an emailed statement, the Belarusian human rights group Viasna called for the bloc to apply “targeted economic sanctions and sanctions against officials responsible for violence and election fraud”.

Christophe Lejeune, the president of the Franco-Belarusian friendship group in the French parliament, said Europe has a moral and geopolitical obligation to act against the top figures in the regime.

“I do not believe economic sanctions should be applied, as they would hit the most vulnerable,” he told the New Statesman. “However, the EU refusing to issue Schengen visas to top figures in the regime and their families would have a significant psychological impact: they would no longer be able to travel to Poland and the Baltics, nor send their children to the best European universities.” He added that Europe should be careful to act without driving Lukashenko into the arms of Moscow.

As Felix Light and I wrote last week, if Lukashenko remains in power, Russia is likely to pressure him to agree to further integration, possibly with the introduction of a common currency issued in Moscow, according to Tatiana Stanovaya, a researcher in the Russian capital. Both states already have some common institutions within the framework of the so-called Union State and Putin’s congratulations to Lukashenko on his election win included a suggestion that both states “deepen cooperation within the Union State, and build up integration processes”.

Nigel Gould-Davies, a former British ambassador to Belarus, said the British and European response should focus on sanctioning the figures at the top of the regime close to Lukashenko, and those responsible on an operational level. He added that Western governments should make clear to the Belarus army that “if they participate in the repression they can forget about training agreements” with European militaries. The government will need to be absolutely sure of the army’s loyalty if it declares martial law. “Western policy needs to be proactive as well as reactive.”

Whether Britain chooses to participate in any coordinated EU response may be an indication of how the UK plans to conduct its post-Brexit European policy. “This is the first big test of where Britain stands and how it exercises its values on the European continent after Brexit,” Stewart McDonald, an SNP MP, told the New Statesman.

The regime is the most fragile it has ever been, Gould-Davies added. As a result, its elites are open to listening to the West about avenues out of the impasse. “Lukashenko’s legitimacy has been irreversibly undermined, and people close to him will be thinking of the future even if he does survive this.”

[see also: How poor handling of Covid-19 has caused uproar in Belarus]

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