An anti-government rally in Misk in September
An anti-government rally in Misk in September © Tut.By via Reuters

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There is one silver lining in the otherwise horrific aircraft hijacking and kidnapping of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega by the Belarus government: it forces a moment of clarity on Europe, and the west generally.

The EU supported the peaceful opposition when the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko rigged the elections last year. But as state violence has kept him in power despite continued protests, western leaders have increasingly let the Belarusian people drift from their minds.

Now, however, it is impossible to pretend that Europe’s security and foreign policy challenges lie mainly in, say, the Indo-Pacific and the Sahel, to mention a few geopolitical preoccupations popular among some in Berlin or Paris. Lukashenko’s gangsterism shows that it is right on the EU’s border — indeed in the airspace between some of its member states — that its security, values and, yes, sovereignty and “strategic autonomy” are most at stake.

After initial mealy-mouthed remarks, the EU found an appropriately muscular response with the announcement of new sanctions. That was the right thing to do. But it is fair to ask whether it will also produce results. Can one hope to change the mind of a dictator and a regime that keep hundreds of political prisoners behind bars, use torture and extreme brutality, and have in the past disappeared opponents? Will sanctions not harden their resolve, or worse, push them into Russian president Vladimir Putin’s arms?

In fact, there are many good reasons to think that sanctions can work to change Minsk’s calculus. Here are five.

1. The regime’s supporters still have more to lose

Most of the EU’s pre-existing sanctions, usefully summarised by Tomasz Wlostowski have targeted individuals, including Lukashenko himself (the European Council secretariat has also published a timeline of what sanctions have been introduced when). That raises the question of whether there is anything left to squeeze.

The answer is yes. Rikard Jozwiak of Radio Free Europe suggests the existing sanctions cover fewer people and entities than they could have in order to protect EU countries’ own business relationships. The European Council conclusions allow for adding more people to the targeted list. The EU’s recent Magnitsky-style sanctions framework could also be applied to Belarus to drag in more individuals and entities. Particularly important is to target notionally private interests that in reality are extensions of the regime.

In addition, one must question whether even the existing individual sanctions have identified all the assets there are to freeze. While Lukashenko and his cronies are more spartan than their Russian equivalents, they are not above securing ample luxury for themselves. Lukashenko’s secret love of luxury villas and cars has been exposed in a video by Nexta — the information outlet Protasevich himself helped set up (presumably one more reason for his kidnapping). More investigative effort into tracking down wealth held by Belarusian leaders (or by business people on their behalf) could be resources well spent.

2. The government finances have more to lose

So far the EU has avoided sanctions that hit broad economic activity. There is a good and a bad reason. The good one is that ordinary Belarusians may suffer if exports are blocked; the bad one is that European importers of Belarusian products will.

What is clear is that the west can make Minsk hurt much more than it has. For being a tightly held autocracy, Belarus is a surprisingly open economy: goods exports amount to about one-half of gross domestic product and services exports for another 15 per cent, according to the IMF. Three of the most important export sectors — fuels and minerals, fertilisers, and metals — largely sell to the EU, the UK, Ukraine and the US. Importantly, they have close links to the state, which means sanctions on them will hit where it hurts, not just make an innocent population suffer. The Belarusian opposition itself has been making these points and proposed concrete companies and sectors to place under sanctions. (Wlostowski has a fuller breakdown of the main export industries.)

Then there are services. The move to keep EU flights out of Belarus’s airspace will slash its revenues from overflight fees. Crippling the airline industry by refusing EU access to the flag carrier will also hurt: aviation contributes significantly to Belarus’s GDP. Belarus is also an important rail transit country; according to Theresa Fallon, a geopolitics expert, 90 per cent of train-freighted Chinese exports to the EU pass through Belarus. A lot of Belarus’s hard-currency earning is exposed as the EU decides to get tough.

3. Russia does not want to bear the cost of a client state

Russia has been supportive of the hijacking and kidnapping. There is no doubt that Putin welcomes Belarus’s alienation from the west and its adoption of his own regime’s methods of repression and misinformation. It is also clear that a successful democratic revolution is the last thing he wants to see on his own doorstep. But that is not the same as wanting the financial liability of either absorbing the Belarusian state or bankrolling its dictator.

In recent years Putin has in fact done the opposite: a reform of Russian oil taxation took away Belarus’s ability to buy Russian crude at subsidised prices in order to refine it and sell at world prices. The costs of controlling the Ukrainian regions Putin has illegally annexed or occupied are already weighing on a sagging Russian economy; there can be little appetite for permanently taking on Belarus as another ward. Lukashenko cannot count on Russia compensating for what is lost in a conflict with the west.

4. The EU has carrots

Instead, it is the west — and in particular the EU — that has both the wherewithal and the desire to help a democratic Belarus. Spurred by member states in Belarus’s neighbourhood, the EU has been considering significant resources for investment and aid, should the regime change course. In European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s words: “We have a 3 billion euro economic and investment package ready to go for Belarus, when it becomes democratic.” That is 5 per cent of the country’s annual GDP.

Besides, there is hardly any other country that could benefit more from greater access to the EU. Belarus has a highly educated workforce that is digitally savvy and well-tuned into modern western economies and societies. Belarus’s biggest private sector success, the IT industry, exports about $4bn a year, or 7 per cent of GDP. This points to ways the EU could help many of these people while putting pressure on the regime: grant a high number — say a million — long-term work permits to Belarusians, and the most modern of Belarus’s industry would shift to the EU in an instant. That would both benefit a lot of individual Belarusians, strengthening their westward orientation, and further undermine the government’s tax base.

Above all, it would show Belarusians with European aspirations that Europe cares about them.

5. It’s about the people

That is the most important point. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Belarusians continue to brave the ever more outrageous oppression by the regime. As the history of resistance to dictatorships in central and eastern Europe shows, it matters enormously to those who resist to know that they are not forgotten by the outside world. Even if acts of solidarity have little effect on the regime by themselves, they fortify the domestic opposition against it. That is why Europe should heed the opposition’s own call for further sanctions — and why we could all write a letter of support to the political prisoners in Belarus’s jails.

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Exile is awkward choice for young Belarusians / From Stefan Auer, Associate Professor in European Studies, Jean Monnet Chair, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

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