Protest actions in Minsk (Belarus), August 16 2020, picture Maxim Shikunets
Since the rigged and stolen election of August 9 in Belarus, the protest movement for freedom, law and democracy has spread throughout the country. The ruthless and unprecedentedly brutal repression by the Lukashenka regime has already claimed several victims and the numerous cases of torture in prisons are well documented. Several tens of thousands of people have been arrested and to date 520 people have been granted the status of political prisoners.
The same regime went so far as to commit an act of air piracy, comparable to a terrorist action, to arrest a popular opponent, Raman Pratasevich, and his fiancée, Sofia Sapega, on 23 May 2021. Raman was forced, after torture and psychological pressure, to “confess” his alleged faults and pledge allegiance to the regime. Faced with these abuses, the European Union and the United States have introduced new sanctions against Belarusian personalities who have monopolized power and against the companies linked to them, depriving them of part of their income. But is this enough to change the situation and allow the Belarusian people to live in the freedom to which they aspire?
We must certainly do more, in terms of aid and official recognition to the opposition led in exile from Vilnius by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and give much more support to the NGOs, independent media and trade unions that continue to fight for freedom. We must also provide opportunities for exiled teachers and students to teach and study in a free environment, including the creation of a university that would welcome them and those who have fled the Russian regime. All schools and universities in the EU should be wide open to them.
But let us be clear: we will not solve the situation in Belarus if we do not dare to confront the Kremlin, which intends to prevent it from becoming a free country by all means.
The domination of the Russian regime over Belarus
We can certainly discuss the past relations between Putin and Lukashenka, which have not always been very friendly, as the Belarusian dictator has often tried to play several games, including European one. But since the elections, the situation has somehow become clearer: the Kremlin fully supports the Belarusian potentate and, even if, for some reason, it were to let him go, it would replace him, thanks to elections that are just as hampered, with another straw man. The various meetings between Lukashenko and Putin, including the last one in Sochi on May 28, 2021, or between Lukashenka and Kremlin emissaries, provide clear evidence of this.
The media linked to the Russian regime already control the official media in Belarus, where all free press has disappeared. Russian special forces are largely assisting the security forces of the Minsk regime. It is quite likely that the former were informed of the act of air piracy, especially since the two countries share air traffic control, or even that they lent a hand, which the investigation should determine. The Kremlin’s propaganda agencies and some Russian parliamentarians have widely congratulated Lukashenka for this operation and relayed the absurd narratives of the regime.
In the mind of the Russian regime, Belarus is part of Moscow’s “zone of influence” along with Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia. This notion, in total violation of the UN Charter and the principle of freedom of peoples, is at the heart of the regime’s revisionism and it is used as an element of alleged legitimacy for its claims to territorial and especially political control. For Putin, the main fear is that a free and democratic regime will be established in this country, which would demonstrate the capacity of a submissive people to free itself from the yoke of a dictator. This is already what he had not supported after the Maidan revolution and which had led in 2014 to the invasion of the Donbass by the “little green men” and the illegal annexation of Crimea. This is also what had “justified” the 2008 war against Georgia. Failing to conquer a country, Moscow intends to make it pay the price of its independence by seeking to break it down, weaken it and, if possible, subject it to the domination of forces that are favorable to it.
One can legitimately speculate about the next steps of the Kremlin’s action in Belarus. Will it send even more troops to support the regime and deter any outside action, which is unlikely? Or will it return to its former plan, reaffirmed during the last meeting in Sochi, to merge the two countries and complete Moscow’s total domination? For the moment, publicly at least, no clear signals have been sent by the Western powers, especially the United States, casting doubt on the resolve of the free world. Although Moscow has granted financial support to Belarus, Russian economy and finances are in a state of collapse, leaving the Kremlin with limited room for maneuver on paper. But it is also known that the Kremlin does not count for its external interventions, even if this means further aggravating the domestic economic and social situation.
On the European side, the absurd idea, put forward at the beginning of Lukashenka’s repression, that the situation in Belarus should be discussed with Russia under the auspices of the OSCE, has fortunately been abandoned. Nevertheless, some people continue to imagine discussions with Moscow on this subject, but it is hard to see where they could lead, as in the case of Ukraine, Syria, Georgia or Transnistria. In reality, if Putin has clear intentions with regard to Belarus, despite a strategy that is carried out with the passage of time, Europe does not seem to have defined them, any more than Washington has. The current divergence within the EU on operational strategy towards Moscow in general does not help to conceive the way forward, despite a welcome sanctions policy towards the Minsk regime.
A European strategy for Belarus?
The EU’s sanctions against Minsk are certainly a necessary and welcome step—it is regrettable that sanctions of this magnitude are not applied to individuals and entities close to the Russian regime. In addition to individual sanctions, they prohibit all exports of potash—of which Belarus is the world’s largest producer—to the European Union, which will certainly have strong repercussions on those close to the regime. However, mainly because of Moscow’s support for Lukashenka, there is little reason to expect them to change the dictator’s behavior. Some also point out that these sanctions are not without loopholes, despite their exceptional character. In a symbolic move, Minsk announced that it was leaving the Eastern Partnership, a decision that is legally impossible since the current government is not recognized by the EU. Brussels has responded that cooperation with the Belarusian people, i.e. the opposition, will continue, perhaps paving the way for its full recognition.
But as indispensable as they are, sanctions have never replaced a policy. Is it also possible to sanction a regime without at the same time sanctioning its main supporter with the same intensity? Rightly, one of the best analysts of Belarus, Katia Glod, pointed out that the sanctions will not have any effect before the end of the year, or even, for some of them, before 2023, including for legal reasons linked to existing contracts with European companies.
So what can the European Union do? It faces several unknowns.
The first concerns the release of political prisoners. Will the Lukashenko regime be willing to loosen its grip on society in exchange for a lifting of its sanctions? For the time being, this remains hypothetical because of its unrestrained repressive obstinacy. Will the regime’s oligarchs be tempted to press him hard in this direction to escape the disastrous consequences of these sanctions for them? This remains equally uncertain and it is difficult to speculate at this stage about a collapse of the regime from within. The release of these prisoners, on humanitarian grounds, is the immediate and most urgent priority. But here again, their release would provide further evidence of the treatment they have been subjected to.
The second unknown is the occurrence of free elections under close international supervision. It is even more difficult to see Lukashenko accepting the principle, especially since he and his associates could incur the wrath of international justice. For the time being, he has adopted a hard-line attitude. Even less is Putin willing to endorse such a scheme.
The third question obviously concerns the durability of the Kremlin’s support. We have already mentioned this: there is no reason, in the present circumstances, for it to withdraw this support. But this is precisely where the European Union and the United States must act: without weakening the Russian regime at its core, in other words, without targeted sanctions on its leaders and its inner circle, the Russian regime will continue to provide protection by all available means. Saving the Belarusian people and the Russian people is a joint struggle. The solution is not Moscow, but our resolute action against its ability to impose its law.
If Europe and America intend to be serious in their affirmation of support for free peoples, if they wish to free themselves from a frozen situation in which, until now, Moscow has always won, if they intend to banish, once and for all, the existence of zones of influence, this is today the only way. It is necessary to have the intelligence to ensure that one day the Belarusian people will gain the place they deserve in Europe.