How Can Belarusian Authorities Retaliate Against the EU Sanctions?

Last month for the first time ever, the EU introduced sanctions against a number of companies, which supply oil refinery products to EU countries. It means that there is still a possibility of expansion of painful economic sanctions against Lukashenka's regime.

There is no dominating opinion in the assessment of the possible effects of the EU sanctions' expansion and possible retaliatory measures of Lukashenka's regime. A more common opinion is that the EU, by introducing, for the first time ever, the sanctions against quite a large number of Belarusian companies, reached a certain line in its pressure on Lukashenka's regime, which it will not cross. It will not cross it because it is afraid of pushing Lukashenka into Russia's arms. This step will be followed by a period of long diplomatic maneuvers and backroom talks on the terms of resuming the dialogue.

Some experts believe that actions of both the EU and Lukashenka's regime, starting from this point, can be described in terms of conflict resolution studies. Each party will make ever stronger confrontational steps to save face. In this case, Lukashenka's actions will resemble more and more to actions of a person who threw a noose around his neck hoping that someone will stop him and agree with him. The noose in this case is the degree of dependence from Russia.

Foreign Policy

The authorities will retaliate to the sanctions mainly in the foreign policy area, and less so in the domestic sphere. Lukashenka's regime will try and convince the West that in response to the expansion of sanctions it will intensify cooperation with Russia.

At the same time, the authorities will try and use the deterioration of relations with the West for persuading Moscow into stepping up its economic support.

In fact, the authorities will make no concessions to Russia. Together with Kazakhstan, they will block the initiatives of the Russian leaders to strengthen the centralization in the framework of the newly created Eurasian Union.

In 2012, the Russian leadership will hardly push for more concessions on the part of Lukashenka's regime. They will not demand to sell Belarusian enterprises to Russian companies and to establish a monetary union.

In 2012, the most pressing foreign policy issue for Putin's administration will be relations with Ukraine. Russia will put pressure on Ukraine in order to buy its gas transportation system. It will push Ukraine into the Customs Union.

Putin's administration will use cooperation with Belarus as an advertisement for Ukraine. However, Moscow will not satisfy Lukashenka's request to increase the volume of subsidies.

Domestic Policy

In the domestic policy sphere, Lukashenka's regime will exert pressure on the EU position by using the methods it uses now. It puts pressure on political prisoners, including using criminals. The authorities made it more difficult for opposition activists and NGO leaders included on its "black list" to go to EU countries.

Repression against opposition groups, which the authorities believe to be involved in the attempt to storm the Government House on December 19, 2010, continues.

If the EU remains consistent and decisive and expands the economic sanctions, it will not lead to a change of power in Belarus: opposition is divided, it is represented by conflicting groups and does not have a leader or a program. In its current capacity, opposition is unable to form a well-functioning government.

However, acting in such fashion, one can force the authorities into implementing changes in Belarus. The first such step should be the release of the political prisoners.

No Good Solutions

If the EU backs down and agrees to Lukashenka's terms, it is most probable that the political prisoners who are now in jail will be released. But then, at the next turn of the cycle of relations between Lukashenka's regime and the EU (thaw - tension) their place in jail will be taken by others.

A certain advantage of Lukashenka's regime in its relations with the West is that for the West, the political decision-making and decision-implementing system in Belarus is a "black box". Until now, an opinion is widespread that Belarus is a de facto super-absolute monarchy. Everything is decided and controlled by one person, Lukashenka.

On Lukashenka's team, there are people who know well how the huge bureaucratic machine of the EU works. There is a great deal of open information about what is said and what is planned to be done in Brussels, as well as about what Brussels and the capitals of some EU countries, which are interested in Belarus, are afraid of. Now, Lukashenka's team will push these buttons, these vulnerable pins of the EU. They know that in the West they are afraid of:

1.    Pushing Lukashenka towards Russia.

2.    Provoking a broad wave of repression.

3.    Causing negative attitude towards opposition from people who are not happy with consequences of the EU sanctions.

4.    Provoking growth of anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments in Belarusian society.

Moreover, businesses in some EU countries, primarily in Lithuania and Latvia, will suffer as a result of sanctions against Belarusian companies. According to some Lithuanian experts, the annual losses of Lithuania as a result of introduction of large-scale EU economic sanctions would amount to about $2bn. According to some Latvian experts, the annual losses of Latvia would amount to $500m.

However, the Belarusian authorities are not going to foster anti-Western hysteria in society for several reasons. First, even in the present-day situation, they believe that the main threat is not generated by the West with all its demands to release political prisoners. They are pretty sure it comes from Russia who is interested in buying Belarusian enterprises and securely attaching Belarus to itself.

Andrei Liakhovich directs the Center of Political Education in Minsk.

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