Heather A. ConleySenior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
Rather than “what is Europe’s best way forward for Belarus?”, the better question to ask is “what is the best way forward for Belarus which can be supported by the transatlantic community?”
The EU has already begun to form the basis of a successful policy approach toward Belarus: non-recognition of the fraudulent presidential election on August 9, 2020, and the sanctioning of individuals responsible for the fraud and violence committed against peaceful protests.
The United States, inexplicably absent, should immediately synchronize its sanctions list with that of the EU and also reject the falsified election results.
But this is only a first, transatlantic step. The EU and United States must provide tangible support to assist holding a future election in Belarus that will be free and fair and monitored by international observers.
In practice, this means providing the National Coordination Council (NCC) and Belarusian civil society with the technical and financial assistance it needs to hold such an election with robust participation by the OSCE (although leaderless at the moment) through its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
Should Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko order his security forces again to perpetrate violence against peaceful demonstrators, which the regime appears poised to do, the EU and United States will need to consider a more fulsome sanctions package as well as formally recognizing the NCC as the legitimate, interim government.
But first, the EU must affirm that Belarus is in fact in Europe (a senior EU official recently disputed this fact) and that choosing ones’ leaders freely and fairly is neither revolutionary nor provocative. It seems that Europe may be wavering a bit on both accounts, with the United States once again missing in policy action.
Thomas de WaalSenior Fellow at Carnegie Europe
The crisis in Belarus could be a long haul. Lukashenko has lost all legitimacy but looks determined to cling on to power. The opposition has won the moral battle but appears to lack a political strategy. Russia looks reluctant to intervene but won’t let one half of its “union state” just slip away.
The EU has played things well so far. It’s right to reject any geopolitical framing of the crisis. The moment in 2013 when then U.S. deputy secretary of state Victoria Nuland handed out cookies to protestors in Kyiv is still shorthand in the Russian media for how the West allegedly masterminded the Ukrainian Maidan.
The priority at the moment is surely to tie Lukashenko’s hands so he cannot resort to more violence. And to insist on new elections.
Here, the European organization which can do most is the OSCE, of which Belarus and Russia are both members—although it’s unfortunately undergoing a leadership crisis. ODIHR could issue a judgment on the August 9 election, leading to a repeat vote under strict OSCE supervision. That’s a scenario even Moscow could get behind.
Charles GrantDirector of the Centre for European Reform
The EU should start with some humility.
It holds few effective levers for influencing Belarus. It gives the government in Minsk only insignificant amounts of aid—though it is now, rightly, stepping up support for civil society.
To be sure, the targeted sanctions it will soon impose on officials guilty of human rights abuse and electoral fraud will hurt a bit, preventing those individuals from having fun in Vilnius and other EU capitals. And European leaders can make it clear that worsening repression will lead to harsher sanctions. But they are, sensibly, keen to avoid the sort of trade sanctions that would harm the Belarusian people.
The EU is worried that Russia may be tempted to intervene to snuff out a color revolution in a country with which it has close cultural, economic, and security ties. EU leaders can minimize that risk by emphasizing that they are not seeking to grab Belarus and shift its geopolitical direction; their concern is democracy. So, they are wisely backing the neutral OSCE in Europe to mediate in Belarus.
But in private, EU leaders must warn Russia that any military intervention would lead to very tough sanctions.
John E. HerbstDirector of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council
The EU made a wise decision to sanction Belarusian officials involved in the crackdown on peaceful protesters against Lukashenko’s efforts to steal the August 9 election.
Its so far refused offer to mediate talks between Lukashenko and opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the presidential candidate who seems to have received the most actual votes, is also a commendable initiative.
But the elephant in the room is the possibility of a Kremlin invasion to prop up Lukashenko. To help prevent this, the EU should coordinate with the United States in outlining deterrent sanctions: sanctions they would implement if Russian troops crack down on Belarusian demonstrators. Those would-be sanctions could target Russian sovereign debt, state banks, and dual-use cyber or energy technologies.
John LoughAssociate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House
Europe needs a three-fold strategy for Belarus.
Short term (0–12 months), it must stand by the people of Belarus and support their demand for them to choose freely their leader.
This requires delivering a clear message to Moscow that the longer Lukashenko stays, the more dangerous the situation will become. Russian President Vladimir Putin must persuade Lukashenko to relinquish power peacefully and allow Belarusians to hold fresh elections.
The EU must also offer Belarus technical assistance beyond what is currently available under the Eastern Partnership to reform the economy and develop an attractive investment environment as part of a stabilization effort.
Medium-term (1–3 years), the EU must rapidly expand contacts to give young Belarusians opportunities to study abroad, while promoting educational and scientific exchanges as well as people-to-people contacts to start the process of overcoming the country’s isolation.
Long-term (5–10 years), the EU needs to implement programs on Belarus that can positively influence Russia. Belarus has low levels of corruption, a capable civil service, and a disciplined society that has the ability to develop quickly economic and democratic institutions and rule of law. If successful, it can play a significant role in shaping the reforms that will eventually be necessary in Russia.
Stefan MeisterHead of the Heinrich Boell Foundation Tbilisi Office
The mass demonstrations and the strike in key factories in Belarus means the end of the leadership of Alexander Lukashenko. All this takes place in a framework set by Russia in all crucial fields of the Belarusian economy, security, and politics.
Russia is the key player for organizing political change in Belarus, and it will not accept anybody undermining its influence, at any cost. This political change in Belarus is not against Russia or for the EU, but it is against a leader that has lost all legitimacy and offers no perspective for his citizens.
For the EU, any role in the short term is limited, but in the long term it can offer a perspective for Belarusian modernization. Therefore, it is important now to put pressure on those in the Belarusian regime who are responsible for violence and ballot stuffing.
There is a need to prepare for new elections where the OSCE can play a key role. However, it is crucial not to provoke a Russian reaction via more political intervention in Belarus. Russia cannot have an interest in a military intervention or in undermining its image through the protection of Lukashenko.
Nevertheless, it will only react rationally if it has the impression that it has everything under control. The change in Belarus will come, and the EU needs to prepare for it. It should further support civil society and offer a long-term perspective for Belarus as a state in Europe.
Dzianis MelyantsouCoordinator of the Belarus’s Foreign Policy Programme of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations
The answer to the question depends on what the EU wants to achieve with its action toward Belarus and to what extent Brussels is ready for concrete policies and not just expressing attitudes.
If it would like to have on its Eastern border a stable state which controls its borders, does not allow foreign military presence, and does not pose a threat to its neighbors, then the EU should support the constitutional transformation of power in Belarus initiated by the incumbent Belarusian authorities and refrain from interference in the country’s internal affairs on either side at this stage.
As the history of bilateral relations has shown, the policy of sanctions and isolation are counterproductive. In response, the authoritarian regime even worsens the conditions for political opponents in order to show its ability to resist foreign pressure.
On the other hand, isolation from the West always resulted in even closer integration with Russia, as Minsk had no other option; it lost its leverage in negotiations with Moscow.
Taking the depth of the current political crisis into account, there is the risk that Belarus will lose its sovereignty completely—with all the negative political, military, and humanitarian consequences for the EU and particularly for those member states that are neighbors to Belarus.
Given the absence of strong alternative leaders in Belarus, the consolidated political elites, and the weak support for the protests by workers of large state-owned enterprises, there is a high probability that the protests will lose their momentum, while Lukashenko will regain the support of his core electorate.
Nevertheless, the protests will press the incumbent authorities to start already announced constitutional reform earlier than initially planned. The EU could assist Belarus in this process to ensure a smooth and predictable transformation.
Jeff RathkePresident of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University
Belarus is a dramatic reminder of the yearning for freedom and the importance of decades-old Euro-Atlantic principles in the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris. It is also a test for Europe and for the United States, which has been stunningly absent in this crisis.
Europe needs to do four things simultaneously:
- Speak with a clear voice. There should be a single European message and daily coordination on the messages conveyed to the public, to the Belarusian government, and to Russia. Germany, France, and Poland could play this role together.
- Support the Belarusian people and their outrage at Lukashenko’s defiance of democracy. The August 19 European Council meeting of EU leaders refused to recognize the rigged election, a good step.
- Raise the stakes against repression. The EU should systematically gather information on officials involved in the crackdown and develop visa and financial sanctions for those implicated. Officials carrying out Lukashenko’s orders may think twice if they understand that they will pay a price.
- Signal to Moscow the costs of intervention. Lukashenko wants this to look like a geopolitical struggle, which it isn’t. Western leaders must avoid this trap while indicating that Russian intervention would draw a political and/or economic response.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies
The EU has been hesitant to respond to the events unfolding in Belarus since the presidential election. It sees itself confronted with the dilemma that statements in support of the opposition could make a Russian intervention more likely.
Prominent members of the opposition have emphasized the need for Belarus to find its own way out of this “national” crisis. The EU has to follow these cues. The consensus that emerged from the EU summit on August 19 hinges on four elements:
- Personal sanctions against members of the political elite (still to be specified)—a by-and-large symbolic step with little direct bearing on the events on the ground.
- An explicit statement condemning the election and the violence.
- An offer to help facilitate the transition toward new elections.
- A redirection of some EU funds directly to civil society actors.
The call for mediation—possibly under the auspices of the OSCE, which counts both Russia and Belarus as its (reluctant) members—is the most important element at this critical moment.
The fact that in the run-up to the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and European Council President Charles Michel were in direct contact with Putin should not be equated with letting Russia determine the future of Belarus. This is the kind of diplomacy required in risky situations—it frames and supplements EU policy.
Radek SikorskiMember of the European Parliament
The EU’s best way forward is to be clear that those guilty of election fraud, political violence, and repression will be targeted with Magnitsky-type sanctions.
On the other hand, if Belarus democratizes, the country can catch up with the mainstream of the EU’s Eastern Partnership and get visa-free access to the EU and an ambitious association agreement, including free trade.
Simultaneously, the EU should signal to Russia that while we do not seek to change Belarus’s orientation in the security sphere, we will blame Russia for a violent crackdown or worse.
Nathalie TocciDirector of the Istituto Affari Internazionali and Special Advisor to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell
Europeans must walk a tightrope on Belarus. They must signal clearly that if Putin were to move militarily in defense of Lukashenko, the EU would be prepared to sanction, meaningfully, any violation of international law. The EU must prepare for the worse in Belarus.
Yet it must do so without turning this into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Belarus opposition did not run on a foreign-policy platform, and the protests so far are not black and white—anti-Russian and pro-European. They are simply pro-democracy. The EU must do the utmost to keep it this way. It must therefore also signal just as clearly to Moscow that it is ready to work with it to facilitate peaceful democratic change in Belarus.
In walking the tightrope, what matters is to keep eyes fixed on the goal. This is not about grand geopolitics, less still about the implications that change in Belarus could have on Putin’s own grip on power in Russia. It is about finally giving the Belarusian people the peaceful democratic change they are fighting for and deserve.
Joseph VerbovszkyAnalyst and Doctoral Candidate from the Bundeswehr University Munich
Belarus once again forces European leaders to ask themselves three perennial questions: What is Europe? Where is Europe? And what price are European leaders willing to pay for the Europe we have?
Europe, at least in its current form, exists since 1945 as part of the Atlantic community based on Western principles: the individual as the basis of society, legitimate representative government, and rule of law.
In contrast to the statement of Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the internal market, Europe is larger than the EU, and its geographic and cultural space includes everything from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. Belarus and Russia for that matter are part of Europe. This is something the protesters, in contrast to Breton, understand. That these countries belong to Europe is the reason we expect them to adhere to Western principles.
The electoral fraud of the Lukashenko government violates at least two of the Western principles: legitimate representative government and rule of law. However, European leaders need to ask themselves whether adherence to these principles is worth the risk of confrontation with Russia. This question has been asked many times before. And Europeans still don’t have a clear answer.