Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Alexander Lukashenko is not the kind of man to let his mind be changed by sanctions, but the right sort of sanctions might change the minds of others, on whose support his regime depends.
Sanctions come in different flavors. At the high end, they can be designed to coerce behavioral change by inflicting intolerable costs on their target. Or they can be used to stop an unacceptable activity directly—for example, banning the export of sensitive technologies to a country with an illicit nuclear weapons program. Or they can be nothing more than a signal of disapproval.
EU sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko—which have been imposed and lifted repeatedly over almost twenty-five years—have mostly fallen in the last category. Lukashenko’s repression is not high-tech: it relies on straightforward brutality and intimidation. An EU ban on the export of surveillance technology and the like, though morally justified, cannot stop the assault on civil society.
But the hijacking of an EU aircraft and kidnap of one of its passengers should lead to sanctions that hit regime insiders and Lukashenko cronies, their families, and their business interests hard enough for them to reconsider their support for Lukashenko and push him into retirement instead.
Liana FixProgram Director for International Affairs at the Körber-Stiftung
No, EU sanctions will not change Lukashenko. But they have two other important functions.
First, the new batch of EU sanctions was a strong signal with the primary goal of deterring Minsk—and, for that manner, anyone else flirting with Lukashenko’s method—from interfering in civil aviation within the EU in general and in particular for the purpose of repressing its opposition in exile. The new sanctions were thus not only about Belarus, but also about protecting the EU’s sovereignty.
Second, the EU’s new sanctions will increase economic pressure on Lukashenko and his regime. This is not necessarily a recipe for immediate (democratic) change, especially not as long as Moscow keeps its protective hand over Lukashenko. But it makes it more difficult for the regime to sustain its current course economically.
The EU should of course also pursue other means of supporting Belarus. Especially civil society in Belarus and in exile needs more financial support. The EU has to make sure that Belarusians in exile are safe and protected within the EU’s borders.
But sanctions against a regime in Minsk that does not even refrain from capturing a civilian aircraft for domestic repression are without alternative. The normative message is: this is unacceptable and the EU will not tolerate such behavior.
Ken GodfreyExecutive Director of the European Partnership for Democracy
The EU has been down the sanctions path before—many times in fact. It imposed sanctions in 2004, 2006, and 2013, but then decided to remove measures on 170 officials and three defense companies in 2016 in the hopes that a “leopard would change his spots.”
Lukashenko won't change because that would be political suicide. When has an authoritarian leader in power for over twenty-five years actually changed?
The EU should sanction Belarusian officials and companies because it sends an important signal. Criticism of the 2016 decision, even if it came with the release of political prisoners, stemmed from the fact that it did not send the right signal to a regime that was still guilty of human rights abuses and had engaged in zero political reform.
So what about the carrot? European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a proposed package of €3 billion ($3.7 billion) in financial assistance for a future democratic Belarus on May 24—akin to a similar offer ahead of the 2010 elections. It didn't work then, but again, the message is important. The EU must send the right signals but then be much bolder when the next opportunity for change appears.
Linas Linkevičiusformer foreign and defense minister of Lithuania
To answer the question directly and briefly, sanctions will not change Lukashenko himself, because he has already exceeded all possible limits and does not intend to return to the usual tactics of balancing between Russia and the West. Russia, which Belarus until recently accused of pressure, is now the only hope and the only intercessor.
Lukashenko is ready to sacrifice everything, even the remnants of his country’s independence and sovereignty, to preserve his position. Partly also because, like all dictators, he has serious concerns about his own security after leaving.
Changes will not come from the outside unless that outside is Russia, which is neglecting international law. The Belarusians themselves, as well as those who still support the regime, need to understand this.
From the international community, Belarusian people expect solidarity, support, significant pressure on the regime, and much stronger sanctions than before. The world must make it clear that it supports the Belarusian people, that it will not tolerate brutality and committed crimes, that it is ready to help the country, but only if the minimum requirements are met.
Unless new, transparent elections are held in the near future and political prisoners are released, the country’s isolation will only increase and it will be difficult to preserve the remnants of independence.
Russia also must be strongly warned that any agreements with Belarus’s illegal leader will not be recognized by the international community. An “absorption” of Belarus will not be recognized just as the occupation of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea have been rejected.
Jovana MarovićExecutive Director of Politikon Network
The EU’s response is expected, but will be effective if it is even stricter and if there is unity within the EU and—from the Western Balkans perspective—the candidate and potential candidate countries.
On the one hand, existing and potential new economic sanctions will further harm the citizens of Belarus who bear the least responsibility. On the other hand, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support, it is difficult to discipline Lukashenko, as the previous introduction of sanctions has shown.
But existing and new measures as well as pressure from the EU are, unfortunately, the only way.
Stefan MeisterHead of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Tbilisi Office – South Caucasus region
No, EU sanctions will not change Lukashenko, but this is also not their goal. It is about showing red lines in undermining international law and principles, in suppressing the Belarusian people.
The EU needs to raise the price for the unacceptable actions of the regime in Minsk without expecting huge changes anytime soon. As long as Russia is supporting Lukashenko economically, it will be very difficult to elicit a change in behavior.
Both Moscow and Minsk need to understand that their actions have a price. That might prevent them from taking their inacceptable actions further.
Sanctions are an important signal to the Belarusian society that the EU supports them and is reacting to what is going on in the country. At the same time, the EU needs to offer the Belarusian people the opportunity to travel easier, to get a visa without problems, to live and study in the EU safely.
The safety of Belarusians in the EU needs to be taken more seriously and the regime in Minsk needs to understand that it cannot freely act against its citizens on EU territory. Simultaneously, economic sanctions must hit the regime and the people who support Lukashenko and his policy.
Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
The EU has to impose harder sanctions above all because the plane capturing incident was a grave violation of international security norms that put at risk the lives of over 120 civilians, including dozens of EU citizens.
Such an act of state terrorism must have a high cost that helps prevent similar behavior by any state in the future and sends a strong message to the international community.
Unfortunately, sanctions are unlikely to change Lukashenko’s behavior or bring about a rapid positive turn of events in Belarus. The Belarusian opposition and the EU call for free and fair elections, which Lukashenko has never been willing to deliver.
Having lost all legitimacy and turned his own people into his worst enemy, the only way forward for Lukashenko is harsh repressions. At the same time, he is unwillingly pushing Belarus into deeper integration with Russia. After the brutality of the past months, the days when Lukashenko could balance between the EU and Russia are over.
The EU has to carefully calibrate the sanctions so as to minimize their impact on ordinary Belarusians and avoid benefiting the Kremlin. Along with sanctions, Europe’s long-term support to Belarusian civil society needs to be beefed up. Eventually democracy can only be built bottom-up.
Gwendolyn SasseNonresident Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe and Director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
EU sanctions will not change Lukashenko’s determination to cling to power. He has not shown any willingness to engage in negotiations since the start of the mass protests last August and is unlikely to do so now, unless forced to by Vladimir Putin.
However, sanctions cannot only be measured against a short-term effect on the authoritarian regime as a whole. Sanctions can send important signals, they might limit the future scope of action of those put under sanctions, and they redefine the wider political and economic context.
The EU was slow to react to Lukashenko’s violent repression of the post-election protests. It took time to generate an EU consensus on personal sanctions, including Lukashenko himself, and concern about Russia’s response to the developments in Belarus moderated the EU’s approach.
The arrest of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega after the interception of a Ryanair flight has been a loud wake-up call for the EU. It is now forced to react.
The new sanctions in the making—a widening of personal sanctions and the first potentially far-reaching economic sanctions—are not only a signal to Lukashenko and his security forces, but, more importantly, to the population of Belarus and to the Kremlin.
However, sanctions can only be one element of a broader EU strategy that includes more and less bureaucratic short- and medium-term support measures for Belarusian citizens.
Artyom ShraibmanNonresident Scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center
There are virtually no European sanctions that could directly change Lukashenko’s behavior. Conceding under pressure is more than just losing face for him; it’s showing weakness to his bureaucracy.
Lukashenko would rather try to share the economic damage with the whole country, blame any crises in the Belarusian economy on Western sanctions, and hope that Russia will bail him out again, simply because Moscow will never have a more anti-Western leader in Minsk, and that’s worth something.
The risk of pushing Minsk toward more dependency on Russia is very real. Left without European markets or logistical routes, Lukashenko will have no other way but to redirect even more of his exports—such as potash fertilizer or oil products—to Russia and through Russian ports.
Yet, some indirect positive impact is possible. By depleting Lukashenko’s economic base, the EU makes him more expensive for Moscow to sustain. If sanctions against Minsk also indirectly damage vital Russian interests, like the ability to pump gas through Belarus—thereby lowering dependence on Ukraine—more voices in Moscow will urge the Kremlin to speed up the resolution of Belarus’s crisis to alleviate this unnecessary burden on Russia.
That’s a slippery road, though, because if the EU openly lumps Putin and Lukashenko together as some double-headed authoritarian monster and sanctions them both using the same reasoning, it will only bring the two strongmen closer to each other.
In other words, tough sanctions on Belarus are a risky endeavor, but the EU has few other levers to try. In any case, the resolution of the Belarusian crisis will depend on Russia’s position. As unpleasant as it sounds, without serious engagement with Moscow, the West cannot achieve much on Belarus.
Susan StewartHead of the Research Division on Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Despite the differences between Belarus and Russia, the EU has learned several lessons from sanctioning Russia that are relevant to the Belarusian case.
First, sanctions have a very important signaling function. They show that the EU is united in finding certain actions unacceptable. This is a crucial message to the outside world—not just the state directly affected.
Second, sanctioning those officials directly involved in a certain action is necessary, but relatively toothless. Greater impact can be achieved by imposing sanctions on those persons and enterprises that keep the current regime afloat. It is essential for the EU to more clearly make the link between the overall nature of the regime and the actions it intends to sanction.
Third, sanctions should only be one component of a broader policy. In the case of Belarus, they should be more visibly complemented by concrete actions to reinforce the EU’s claim that it stands for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, whether this involves supporting opponents of the Belarusian regime within or outside Belarus. And if these steps are appropriate for Belarus, they are all the more so for Russia, whose regime represents a much greater danger to the EU than Lukashenko.
Zsuzsanna SzelényiRichard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy
Since the beginning of the outbreak of mass demonstrations and the successive brutal repression on the Belarusian people, EU sanctions have had no influence on the behavior of strongman Lukashenko. The regime has become even more repressive.
Now that the regime poses a security threat to the EU, there may be more political will for increased pressure from the EU on Lukashenko. Sanctions, however smart and extended they are, can only be one part of the response.
This is because the aim is not only to end police brutality and release political prisoners, but to rerun the election under free and fair conditions and hand over power to democratically elected politicians. The Belarusian people and a new national leadership are key actors here.
The EU must send a clear message to the people that their resistance and sacrifices are not in vain. The bloc must express how it can help Belarus when Lukashenko is gone.
Here are just a few ideas to consider: a reconstruction package; an international trial for the top people around Lukashenko; a free Schengen visa for Belarusian citizens; and support for the country’s youth.
Sanctions isolate the country. What is needed is encouragement of Belarusian civil society to build its resilience. They cannot do it alone.
Richard YoungsSenior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe
The unsurprising answer is that sanctions on their own are unlikely to bring down the Belarusian regime.
The extensive academic literature on sanctions has long struggled to pin down their impact with precision. It is notoriously difficult to isolate the effect of restrictive measures in any individual case when so many different factors are in play.
Yet it is clear that EU sanctions on a few dozen individuals will not have a material impact of any significance on the regime. The issue is whether more EU—and US, UK—sanctions signal convincingly to democratic reformers, protestors, and civil society organizations inside Belarus that other forms of support are likely on the back of these initial measures.
In this sense, the EU’s offer of a €3 billion ($3.7 billion) package could be significant. This will of course not convert Lukashenko to democracy, but it may indirectly embolden wider and further resistance against the regime.
It is worth recalling, however, that prior to last year’s elections and uprising, the EU was content to build a rapprochement with Lukashenko in return for very specific concessions like the release of political prisoners. In this vein, it is relevant to ask what would happen were international pressure to “change Lukashenko” in the sense of pushing him to make limited concessions but without a far-reaching political opening.
It is eminently possible that a geopolitically driven EU would then move to defuse tensions with a slightly softened authoritarian regime, replaying the hot and cold cycle it has gone through several times with Belarus over the last fifteen years.
Still, as always with Belarus, the trajectory will depend more on the Putin-Lukashenko relationship than on the precise reach of EU sanctions.