On June 28, Belarus announced new travel restrictions that essentially close the country’s borders. Under these new guidelines, the government will prevent Belarusians with long-term residence permits in other countries from leaving Belarus. The government claims these restrictions are temporary and intended to contain the spread of COVID-19, but most likely they are intended to deter Belarusian nationals from fleeing political persecution.
In May Belarus forced a Ryanair flight to make an emergency landing in Minsk to arrest Raman Pratasevich, co-founder of anti-Lukashenko media channel Nexta and prominent opposition organizer. In response, the United States and the European Union blocked most flights to and via Belarus. Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, responded by suspending flights to the EU. Recently, President Alexander Lukashenko also closed the border with Ukraine. To justify this policy, he claimed without evidence that weapons were being smuggled in from Ukraine to overthrow him. As a result of these tensions, it is now almost impossible to leave Belarus; Lukashenko has de facto closed his borders to the world.
In addition to merely restricting flights, the EU, UK, Canada and the US responded to the Ryanair flight incident by imposing sanctions on Belarus. The EU has sanctioned Belarus’ largest export industry, and the US has imposed sanctions on Belarusian state-owned companies. Belarus retaliated by curtailing cooperation with the EU in reducing illegal immigration, and Lukashenko withdrew the country from the Eastern Partnership program.
In response to the exit from the agreement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, stated that “[her] Team and all democratic forces will continue to work with our European partners and do everything possible to ensure that our country is represented by those who really have the right to speak on behalf of the people. ”In other words, she stayed working with Committed to the EU and the democratic forces in Belarus. Russia, Belarus’ closest and most important ally, doubled its support for Lukashenko. On July 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would “continue to provide comprehensive assistance to the fraternal Belarusian people in the current political situation” and during the current sanctions struggle.
Alexander Lukashenko’s actions are a clear escalation of authoritarianism. Despite the brutal suppression of dissenting opinions in the past, this de facto closure of Belarusian borders represents a new level of state control over the daily life of Belarusians. It closes the borders to scare future dissenters into submission. This policy makes it clear that opposition voices cannot flee the country if they are attacked by the government. In response, the EU and US should expressly support the Coordination Council, a non-governmental organization founded by Tsikhanouskaya, to support a democratic transfer of power. By coordinating action with the West, this organization can successfully gain enough support to lead an internal opposition to Lukashenko while maintaining good relations with the West.
By distancing himself from Europe, Lukashenko is strengthening relations with Russia. This fulcrum does not bode well for the region. By moving closer to Russia, Belarus will deter and prevent useful EU economic investments. In addition, Russia will increasingly be able to use Belarus to coerce and pressure near Eastern European countries like Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland.
The de facto closing of the Belarusian borders is another tactic by Lukashenko to stay in power. He took office in 1994 and is considered “Europe’s last dictator”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he kept many institutions intact, including state media, a command economy, and the KGB. However, Lukashenko has lost popular support due to corruption, poverty and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, he manipulated the results of the August 2020 elections through ballot papers and other anti-democratic election tactics in order to stay in power. As a result, protests quickly broke out in the country, but Lukashenko brutally suppressed dissent.
Fear for the safety of her family forced the main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to flee the country after the election. In addition, the US and EU did not recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate election winner. Since the election chaos, the Belarusian government has taken action against dissent by searching critical media and arresting journalists. Therefore, these border closings are another attempt by Lukashenko’s illegitimate regime to stay in power by restricting the movement of Belarusians and suppressing dissenting opinions out of fear.
In the future, Lukashenko’s regime is likely to become more reactionary as dissent against the dictatorship grows. Although his draconian policies will weaken the opposition’s strength in the short term, they will alienate Belarusian nationals in the long term. Without public support, his regime will find it difficult to survive. Lukashenko will inevitably turn more to Russia in his attempt to stay in power and distance the country from the rest of Europe.