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EU strengthens sanctions compliance while US considers Belarusian transit of Ukrainian grain

On 30 May, the European Council agreed on its sixth package of sanctions against Russia and pledged to increase its pressure against Belarus. On the other side of the Atlantic, US and UN representatives suggested temporarily relieving sanctions against...

On 30 May, the European Council agreed on its sixth package of sanctions against Russia and pledged to increase its pressure against Belarus. On the other side of the Atlantic, US and UN representatives suggested temporarily relieving sanctions against Belarus in exchange for transporting Ukrainian grain that is being blockaded at Black Sea ports.

This suggestion represents a u-turn in US policy towards Belarus and puts the EU in a difficult position. The EU has adopted unprecedented measures against both Belarus and Russia following the Russian aggression against Ukraine. At present, the EU is trying to improve its sanctions compliance mechanisms.

Although the “sanctions relief for grain” transaction could in principle help to alleviate hunger and even famine in parts of Africa, this may also undermine the integrity of Europe’s sanctions policy towards the Belarusian regime, which continues to commit gross human rights violations and to provide a base for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Sanctions as a “natural habitat” for the Belarus regime

In the past, EU-Belarus relations had a cyclical nature, with periods of sanctions and deteriorating bilateral cooperation — 1997-1999, 2004-2008, 2011-2015 — interspersed with the restoration of dialogue. The EU has adopted sanctions in response to every significant election or referendum marked by serious fundamental rights violations in the country except for the 2001 and 2015 presidential elections.

A graph illustrating the cyclical nature of EU sanctions. Source: From Sanctions to Summits: Belarus after the Ukraine Crisis.

Following the fraudulent 2020 presidential election and post-election violence, the EU enacted three rounds of sanctions against Belarus. The sanctions pressure gradually increased. The fourth and the fifth sanctions packages targeted Belarusian oil and potassium exports following the Ryanair plane diversion as well as the instrumentalisation of migrants for political purposes.

Due to the suspension of the transport of Belarusian fertilisers by the Lithuanian railways in compliance with the US sanctions in 2022, the reori­entation of Belarusian oil and potassium products to alternative markets faced structural and logistical chal­lenges, which were further compounded by the war in Ukraine. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU pressure against Belarus has ramped up. There are EU sectoral bans on wood, cement, steel, and rubber products, financial restrictions on transactions with the Belarusian Central Bank, as well as the prohibition on road transport between the EU and Belarus. Belarus is now one of the most sanctioned states in the world.

But sanctions have been a “natural habitat” for the Belarusian regime since 1997. The restoration of cooperation in 2008 and 2015 followed previous instances of sanctions on Belarus. The Belarusian authorities have consistently managed to convince the EU to lift sanctions in exchange for a few concessions, such as the release of political prisoners or minor amendments to the Belarusian Electoral Code. Both in 2008 and 2015, the EU was ready to make concessions and relax sanctions even though they did not fulfil the objectives of democracy promotion in Belarus. The Russian war in Georgia in 2008, the illegal occupation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Donbas in 2014 made stability in Belarus more important for the EU than a real democratic transformation.

In a similar vein, the Belarusian regime might have calculated to use Russian aggression against Ukraine as a tool for its external legitimation in 2022. Those hopes did not materialise. In 2022, the EU sanctioned Minsk as a co-aggressor along with Moscow. Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia—previously conducted in Minsk—were swiftly moved to Istanbul.  This does not mean that Minsk will stop its efforts to engage in a dialogue with the West. The Belarusian regime has a well-tested recipe of remaining in power by playing Russia against the West and trading political prisoners for the relief of sanctions. This is a scenario that the EU must be careful to avoid, or it risks repeating past mistakes.

Tightening up EU sanctions

Up until 2022, the EU lacked sufficient tools for the enforcement of its sanctions. According to some allegations, in 2020 the Belarusian authorities used Czech-made stun grenades against peaceful protestors in Belarus supplied in violation of an EU arms embargo on Belarus in place since 2011. Similar claims are relevant with respect to German-made body armour. Those incidents signal the proper implementation and enforcement of EU sanctions remain up for question.

In contrast to the United States, where the Office of Foreign Assets Control oversees compliance and implementation issues concerning US sanctions, in the EU, the final decision stays in the hands of member states. The decentralisation of sanctions monitoring risks the divergent application of sanctions across the EU. In this respect, the growing oversight role of the Direc­torate-General for Financial Stability, Financial Services, and Capital Markets Union (DG FISMA) will certainly bring more harmonisation to EU sanctions implementation.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the coordination at the EU level on financial investigations has been strengthened via the Freeze and Seize Taskforce and Europol’s Operation Oscar. The Commission also foresees criminal responsibility for any sanctions breaches. Such measures change the preventive nature of sanctions by aligning breach punishments with criminal penalties.

The “grain for sanctions” deal poses a dilemma

The improvement of EU sanctions monitoring contrasts with discussions on the potential relief of sanctions measures in exchange for the transport of grain. Such a preliminary lifting of sanctions or any trade-off will undermine the objectives of EU sanctions against Belarus. The relaxation of sanctions may also send the wrong signal to Belarusian civil society—their Belarusian cause being subsumed under a bigger deal on Ukraine.

Therefore, any potential discussion on the future easing of sanctions in exchange for some concessions by the Belarusian authorities should take place with the involvement of Belarusian civil society, experts, academia, and representatives of the democratic forces.

Given that the EU-Belarus relationship has long been marked by a cycle of rapprochement and retrenchment, the EU would keep more leverage if it suspends sanctions instead of lifting them. The temporary suspension of sanctions to alleviate hunger in Africa would increase the EU’s bargaining power since it can be reversed if the regime resumes behaviour deemed problematic by the EU.

Yuliya Miadzvetskaya

University of Tubingen

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