Europe's Economic Sanctions as a Symbolic Gesture

This week the European Union introduced economic sanctions against three Belarusian companies supposedly linked to Alyaksandr Lukashenka. The European Union also imposed an embargo on Belarus on arms and on materials that might be used for internal repression. It is the first time ever that Europe imposed an arms embargo against Belarus and economic sanctions against individual Belarusian companies. Many questioned whether Europe could ever agree on it. The eventual introduction of sanctions shows how alienated from Europe the Belarusian regime is.

According to British press, the United Kingdom Government and in particular British Foreign Secretary William Hague lobbied hard for economic sanctions. Apparently Poland was another country particularly unhappy with Lukashenka. On Monday, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski announced that Lukashenko should choose between democracy or the Hague tribunal. Other countries, led by Italy and Latvia, had opposed the introduction of economic sanctions. But these countries remain a minority. It appears that Europe plans to gradually increase its sanctions in response to the ongoing human rights violations in Belarus. However, the effect of these sanctions is unlikely to have any major impact. 

Economic Sanctions

Economic sanctions against three Belarusian companies have a great symbolic meaning. But their actual economic effect is likely to be less significant. The impact of sanctions on the business depends heavily on whether the companies still had significant assets in Europe. Discussions about possible sanctions against Belarusian arms exporters have been going on for months. Most likely companies like Beltechexport, one of the companies affected by the sanctions, have already moved what they could to safer locations. 

Beltekhexport is already on the United States sanctions list for violation of its nonproliferation regime. Belneftekhim has been under the United States Sanctions since 2007, but Europe hesitates to target it.  European companies have significant business contacts with Belneftekhim, which may partially explain the hesitance. Moreover, the largest Belarusian state company, the potash giant Belaruskali remains untouched while the Belarus government is trying to find a buyer for it. Therefore, Europe left itself plenty of space for future manouvering. 

Media Freedom 

The EU deplored the continuing deterioration of media freedom in Belarus, including the lawsuits filed by the Ministry of Information to close two of Belarus’ largest independent newspapers, Nasha Niva and Narodnaya Volya. They also condemned the trial of the journalist Poczobut, and the cancelled licence of radio station Autoradio.

Indeed, journalists in Belarus remain the main target of repression. Although in theory Europe supports media freedom in Belarus, the brunt of that burden remains on Poland. This country hosts the main Belarusian independent outlets such as Belsat and European Radio for Belarus. They produce good content, but the majority of Belarusian population has no regular access to satellite television or Internet. Helping Poland with setting up direct transborder broadcastings could be a better and quicker way to enable Belarusians' access to uncensored information. 

Visas for Belarusians

In the resolution on sanctions the European Union also expressed its hope that the Belarusian Government will cooperate with Europe on simplification of visa procedures. In other words, the European Union failed to reach a consensus on a unilateral simplification of Schengen visa procedures. Many believe that it is naive to wait for the Belarus government good will (there may be none) and the European Union should simplify visa procedures unilaterally. 

Individual member states already started doing it.  Lithuania recently joined Latvia and Poland which agreed to unilaterally waive visa fees for most of the national visas they issue.  Lithuanian Parliament amended a law which currently allows to reduce or waive visa fees in the interests of foreign policy and national security. In the past, such reduction required reciprocity. By reducing or waiving visa fees Lithuania attempts to facilitate development of civil society in Belarus. However, getting the most popular short-term Schengen visas, is still more cumbersome and expensive for Belarusians than for any of its neighbours. 

Russia promptly condemned European sanctions against Belarus. Moscow is playing is own game in Belarus. The Kremlin decision-makers understand that the recent changes in the level of subsidies to Belarus has a more dramatic effect on Belarus economy and politics than all European or American sanctions combined. For years Belarus has been on the needle of Russian subsidies and now it suffers from a terrible hangover. For Russian businesses the new European sanctions merely create a favourable context to cheaply privatize state-owned assets in Belarus. 

YK

Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.

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