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Belarus After Sanctions: the Lost Dictator

The recent tragic events in Minsk returned Belarus to the headlines of Western media. Europe and the United States are struggling to adopt an effective policy towards the country – by reinventing the policy of sanctions, the relations of...

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The recent tragic events in Minsk returned Belarus to the headlines of Western media. Europe and the United States are struggling to adopt an effective policy towards the country – by reinventing the policy of sanctions, the relations of the West with Belarus in recent months returned to ground zero. Western pundits, rightly so, have mostly been critical of EU’s soft measures that are based on economic sanctions.

Even though the visa ban increased the number of blacklisted officials, it hardly seems to be a sufficiently tough response to the crackdown of December 19, which resulted in an increased number of political prisoners. Alexander Lukashenka raised the stakes with the brutal crackdown, and the West should equally respond respectively. In the meantime the West should finally learn how to support the Belarus’ beleaguered opposition but also that rely only on them in a country where most people work for the state, won’t be enough for democratic change. Moreover, it is still unclear what the exactrole/goal of part of the opposition on December 19 was?

If the West intends to change Belarus, serious “de-mythization” of it should first take place to choose the right policy, and most importantly to find the right formula of assistance strategy that would promote the European values as the alternative for the current state of Belarus. For that matter, the world should finally recognize that Belarus does not have a problem because it has Lukashenka, but it has Lukashenka because Belarus has a problem.

The new wave of revolutions in North Africa – Tunisia and Egypt – should not only urge the West to consider the need to increase democracy assistance, but also to think of ways of achieving “democratic” change that would lead to reforms. Learning from the post-Orange revolutionary Ukraine Europe should aim at changing Belarus, not only shooting at its leader. Considering the shockwave that swept through the entire society (not only the opposition) after the crackdown alongside the growing feeling of instability caused by inflation, severe budget deficit, and the forthcoming privatization process, the West should isolate or even ignore Lukashenka. Not having oil or gas to bargain with, he is “forced” to sell the only “commodity” he has – the image of the last dictator of Europe.

Lukashenka’s decision on post-election crackdown could be explained by cracks, clashes amongst different interest groups in the regime, a Russian (or other) plot, opposition provocation or simply by his own emotional decision to put an end to “this mindless democracy”. Instead of guessing, it is more important to notice that he has weakened his own position before the upcoming privatization process. This has the potential of becoming a game-changer. Obviously the regime will want to control the privatization process and they want to (and actually do) control the opposition. With a smart approach, the West may have a chance to isolate Lukashenka further from his own society and make the bureaucracy to reconsider the risk of having him in power for too long. If he is no longer able to provide concessions to pay for his regime, the door for other alternatives will be more open.

The Western press and policymakers, rightly so, are pushing for a tougher response. Without seriously considering economic sanctions the EU, once again, will remain the hostage of the opposition it supports. A new policy must finally acknowledge that Belarus provides a more complex challenge than it seems. It is not only about Lukashenka but about a society that approves and supports order and stability and does not mind a lack of freedom in return. To make Belarus embrace European values – such as leadership change through free and fair elections – the West needs to engage with all layers of society.

Most importantly, unless the West is able to expand its contacts and influence among Belarus’ most influential class, the bureaucrats, it will have little chance to pursue desired change of the system. Proving to the bureaucrats that the leader is no longer in position to deliver concessions from the West (and East) joined with aid programs
to the civil society, independent media, and re-building the opposition could spark the needed change in Belarusian leadership and society.

Let’s face it, finally, the real long-term challenge in Belarus is social and political change, not only regime change. The former would give us another Poland, the later – Ukraine.

Balázs Jarábik

Balázs is an Associate Fellow at FRIDE in Madrid, Spain. A longer paper on this topic is available at FRIDE.org.

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