Over the past 30 years, relations between the European Union and Belarus under Lukashenka have alternated between frosts and thaws. And whenever the Belarusian regime felt threatened in its seizure of power, it always used its instruments of repression. This happened after the fake presidential election in 2020; In response, however, the EU has shown little ingenuity in its approach over the past year. She regularly expressed her “deepest concern” and called on Lukashenka to hold new free and fair elections – which would actually have meant that he would have voluntarily put himself in prison; obviously that would never happen. Brussels also imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials – but these did not affect economic interests either within Belarus or within the union. Of course, Lukashenka is still cracking down on civil society in Belarus and is putting his opponents in jail.
There are rational explanations for the EU’s approach. The effectiveness of economic sanctions in principle and their ethical dimension has been discussed in Europe for a long time. The main arguments of opponents for dealing a blow to the Belarusian economy last year centered on this risk of failure, and even on the risk of increasing Minsk’s dependence on Moscow. Others claimed it was unacceptable to “punish ordinary people” who are already under the yoke of an authoritarian regime. However, the arrest of Raman Pratasevich in May after the regime forcibly diverted a Ryanair flight made it clear that not only ordinary Belarusians can fall victim to the aggression of Lukashenkas Belarus, but also EU citizens.
The arrest has forced EU leaders to reconsider the political crisis and change course. In recent months, European capitals have started talking about punishing the Lukashenka regime more severely for violating international norms. And when additional sanctions were approved by the EU last week, they targeted the most profitable sectors of the Belarusian economy: oil, potash and banking. Against this new background, the question of the well-being of ordinary Belarusians had certainly receded into the background; and the arguments of the Belarusian opposition leaders that the common people “are willing to be patient” – to endure some pain for the longer-term benefit of Lukashenka’s deposition – eventually found a hearing among European politicians. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell explained the logic of the new approach by likening it to an omelette “that cannot be made without breaking eggs”.
“Broken eggs” should not only be understood as a deterioration in the socio-economic situation of the Belarusians. Even if the adopted sectoral sanctions come into force over time and do not hit the economy immediately, they will also have an impact on EU countries. Lithuania, for example, can suffer millions of dollars in losses if it restricts the trade in potash fertilizers it ships through its port of Klaipeda. Similar restrictions on oil products will similarly affect Latvia. The sanctions against the banking and telecommunications sector directly affect the interests of Austrian companies that have benefited from cooperation with the Belarusian authorities. Economic consequences are inevitable for both sides.
But whether this new approach will bring the desired policy results remains a very big question. On the one hand, there are many examples worldwide of harsh economic sanctions that consolidate rather than weaken authoritarian regimes while at the same time destroying a country’s economy and worsening the human rights situation. On the other hand, the economic effects of a blockade of entire sectors of the Belarusian economy could trigger previously unimagined reactions in the public, but also in the Belarusian power structures. Lukashenka’s supporters also see more and more clearly that maintaining power is costing the country – and their personal wallets – more and more. The EU’s approach could also spark new mistakes by the Belarusian authorities, provoked by the emotional reactions of the Belarusian strongman to the deterioration of his already unenviable position. The economic and political price of supporting Lukashenka will also rise for Moscow, increasing budget spending and motivating Vladimir Putin to look for cheaper options to assert his influence over Belarus. All of this together could significantly change the balance of power in the political crisis – and in turn lead to the EU playing a major role in the final solution.
But so far the Belarusian authorities have shown no signs of withdrawal. On the contrary, they suspended the country’s participation in the Eastern Partnership and asked the EU ambassador to return to Brussels. In addition, they have also suspended the readmission agreement with the EU and continue to organize channels for migrants from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries to pass their territory and further to neighboring Lithuania, Latvia and Poland to create a humanitarian crisis and instead forces the EU to withdraw. The number of illegal migrants at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border has already exceeded the previous year’s figure by more than seven times. The smuggling of cigarettes made in Belarus is also breaking new records: since the beginning of the year, the Lithuanian customs authorities have confiscated more than 1.7 million packs worth over 5 million euros at the border. Lukashenka is confident that this “bullish strategy” – which has proven itself throughout his career – will work again.
This time, however, it seems to be working against him. Such actions only reinforce the illegitimate status of the regime and consolidate all EU members against it. Increased migration and smuggling made possible and promoted by Belarus are no longer purely bilateral relations between Belarus and neighboring countries, but a problem on the eastern border for the entire EU and NATO. That is why the EU is now ready to take risks and consciously accept considerable economic losses if the end of the Lukashenka era approaches. The simple reason is that the strategic costs of the military-political and humanitarian threats posed by the current Belarusian authorities to the EU may be much higher than potential financial losses. The EU is often criticized for being unable or unwilling to become a real geopolitical force. But their recent reaction to the Belarusian authorities shows that the EU has teeth and is ready to use them and even sacrifice some specific interests for them. In many ways, the Belarus crisis serves as a test for the EU to learn from its mistakes and become a groundbreaking actor in its own neighborhood. And the new skills that Brussels is now acquiring in the clash with Minsk will undoubtedly prove useful in other regions of the world over time.
The European Council on External Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications reflect only the views of its individual authors.