The Reverse Effect of EU Sanctions

Last week Gunnar Wiegand from the European Commission announced that the EU was going to extend sanctions against Belarus. 135 more people may be added to the existing list of 208 Belarusian officials who are prohibited to visit the EU. Diplomatic sources also suggest that one or several Belarusian enterprises may be added to the ban list.

Europe wants to show that it cares about the situation in Belarus. Some even hope that Belarusians will soon revolt. But this 'tough love' approach is counterproductive. Despite the worst economic crisis in Belarus since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of those who are willing to protest  diminishes. Ironically, the highest number of protesters in this century was in December 2010 when Belarusians were much richer than they are today and Europe pursued the policy of engagement. 

The EU Council of Ministers may make its final decision on January 23. Instead of wasting their time and efforts on introducing yet another round of symbolic sanctions, the European Union should come up with fresh ideas how to empower and integrate Belarusian society. The EU should invest into making its presence in Belarus more effective to get enough political and economic leverage to influence the situation there.

The Reverse Effect of Sanctions

The EU imposed its first set of sanctions on 31 January 2011 after fraudulent presidential election and repression of opposition rallies. Then it extended them several times over the year in hope to free political prisoners, including former presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikalai Statkevich who were sentenced to 5-6 years of imprisonment.

In 2011 American politicians supported the isolation policy and imposed economic sanctions against important state-owned enterprises JSC Naftan, JSC Grodno Azot, JSC Grodno Khimvolokno and JSC Belshina. On 3 January 2012 US President Barack Obama signed the Act on democracy and human rights in Belarus that is intended to provide additional support for Belarusian civil society. The Act extends existing visa and financial sanctions. It also appeals to the the organizers of the World Ice Hockey Championship 2014 to move it from Belarus to another country.

Nevertheless, all these actions hardly help Belarus become democratic. Quite the contrary, the human rights situation in Belarus has significantly deteriorated in comparison with that of the period between 2008-2010 when the EU and the USA pursued an engagement policy. For example, this week jailed Belarusian opposition activists were placed under even stricter conditions. Earlier Belarusian authorities restricted the freedom of assembly with the introduction of new legislation that requires permission for any street actions such as flash-mobs or 'silent' protests.

Many EU politicians and some people in Belarus claim that visa sanctions play a great symbolic role. In reality, however, some of those on the EU travel ban list travel to the EU without restrictions to attend events organized by intergovernmental organizations.

Look at the facts: the First Deputy Interior Minister Oleg Pekarsky traveled to Vienna to participate in the UN round table on 24 March 2011. Belarusian TV propagandist Alexey Mikhalchenko visited Lithuania to take part in the OSCE Council of Foreign Ministers summit in December 2011. Finally, Anatoly Kuleshov, Minister of Internal Affairs, made an official visit to the INTERPOL General Secretariat in Lyon earlier this month. Kuleshov is personally responsible for repression of the post-election opposition demonstration.

Economic sanctions are a key for change?

Some isolation policy advocates argue that the only way to change the situation in Belarus is to impose harsh economic sanctions to force the collapse of the Belarusian economy. For years the most radical representatives of the Belarusian opposition hoped for the revolution on economic grounds.

Last year, the worst economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union occurred in Belarus, but no revolution took place. The average salary in Belarus is now the lowest in the region. However, Narodny Skhod and other opposition rallies that had been specifically arranged to protest against deterioration of the economic situation gathered less than a thousand people. The numbers were much higher after the presidential elections in December 2010, when there were no sanctions, and people were earning much more and had fewer reasons to be unhappy than today.

Take the Moscow protests as another example. More than 100 000 people participated in December 2011 in the demonstration against the United Russia Party in Moscow, the richest city in the post-Soviet space.  This happened because young Russians can easily travel to Europe, actively use the internet and many have a Western education. 

Belarusians now have much more practical problems to resolve than changing the regime. There is no time to think about democracy when there is nothing to eat at home.

Sanctions Almost Never Work

Sanctions look like a good and morally correct response to what is happening in Belarus, but international experience shows that unfortunately they fail to bring the expected results. The Cuban regime has not changed, Iran and North Korea have not stopped in their development of their nuclear programs. The Soviet Union has been dismissed by Soviet leaders themselves, not due to the magical effect of the 1974 US Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are not very democratic countries today, but it did not impede Kazakhstan from heading the OSCE in 2010 and Azerbaijan to become a Council of Europe member.

What is more important, European and American sanctions just create favourable conditions for Russia to buy or privatize Belarusian enterprises and other assets for a lower price. Belarusian companies become less attractive to Western investors when they are included in the ban list. In such situation Belarusian authorities are forced to rely on Russian support for their survival. Consequently, it motivates Belarus to participate in the Eurasian Union project with Russia and Kazakhstan.

Isolation or engagement?

A new engagement policy intended to foster Belarus-EU ties on all levels could be a better alternative. The EU needs to develop contacts with Belarusian civil servants and businessmen that have a great influence over the situation in the country. At the same time, the EU should increase its support for civil society, reduce visa fees and make a large-scale expansion of employment, internship and education opportunities for Belarusians. Increased engagement would help more to release political prisoners than yet another round of good old sanctions.

George Plaschinsky is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied under the OESS scholarship by European Comission.

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