“Europe’s Last Dictatorship,” EU Investment For Belarus Placed on Hold Until it Respects Democracy

On Monday, 24th of May, the European Union (EU) paused its three billion Euro investment package for Belarus, after the forced diversion of a commercial airliner and arrest of an opposition figure on board, and will remain on hold until the country turns democratic. The EU agreed to impose further sanctions on Belarus, implement economically targeted measures and ban its airlines from using its airspace and airports. The United States (U.S.) and other key international organizations condemned the action and have called for the release of the detained and all the political prisoners unjustly detained. Western leaders had previously imposed sanctions on top Belarusian officials amid protests of the unfair and rigged election of 2020 which resulted in President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko’s reelection to a sixth term and  27th  year in power. Since this election, EU relations with Belarus have deteriorated due to the violations of human rights, democracy, and rule of law occurring in Belarus. The forced diversion of the airliner and arrest of an anti-establishment journalist has been called out as an attack on democracy, free speech and European Sovereignty.

Belarusian authorities forced Ryanair Flight FR4978 to land in the capital Minsk, escorted by a fighter jet under the claim of a bomb threat. Once landed, Roman Protasevich, journalist and critic of Lukashenko was arrested alongside his companion, Sofia Sapega. According to ABC News, the EU called this forced diversion of the plane flying from Greece to Lithuania a brazen “hijacking.” ABC further reports Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the executive European Commission, on the matter, “This is an attack on democracy…an attack on freedom of expression. And… an attack on European sovereignty. And this outrageous behavior needs a strong answer.”  There has been much speculation on the validity of an actual bomb threat, and many view this as a planned move by Belarus authorities to crush dissent.

MSN reports that Protasevich helped found an alternative Telegram channel to document and coordinate protests against the government. Colleagues of Protasevich, who are currently based in Poland and  continue to run the remnants of the anti-government media, are facing an increasing and new wave of death threats. MSN reports that Lukashenko’s government for years has stripped many news organizations of their accreditation and has made journalists face raids, arrest, imprisonment, or forced relocation abroad. MSN further reports that Lukashenko had previously tolerated certain opposition-minded and foreign media until the mass protests erupted after the presidential election last August that his opponents say was rigged; Lukashenko denies electoral fraud, instead accusing the media of doing everything to “destroy people’s trust in the state” and has accused some journalists of helping to coordinate the protests. Furthermore, MSN reports that a day following Protasevich’s arrest, new measures to control media activities, including a blanket ban on covering protests or publishing opinion polls without prior authorization from the government were introduced.

A video was released of Protasevich appearing to confess to organizing “mass riots”. Yet scholars, family members and human rights groups have expressed that it is extremely likely Protasevich was coerced into confessing. Protasevich’s father, in an interview with Reuters, said his son’s nose appears broken, his face appears to be covered in powder, and that he has unusual body language. The Post quotes Jennifer Mathers, a senior lecturer in international politics at Aberystwyth University, on Protasevich’s confession video, stating that it “fits a longer historical pattern that goes back to Soviet times of demanding false confessions, especially where there is no real evidence to support a conviction.”

As the Washington Post succinctly puts it “the Belarusian power play set a fearsome precedent for journalists and political dissidents, who must now worry about flying through the airspace of repressive regimes, even if they are moving from one free capital to another.”  These actions taken by Belarus could not go without consequences and the EU acted rather swiftly. Most notably, the EU decided to freeze its investment and economic package for Belarus. Additionally, the EU agreed to step up existing sanctions against Belarus and implement new economically targeted measures. Reuters quotes von der Leyen on what these measures would look like, “The new measures may target individuals involved in the forced landing of a Ryanair plane, businesses and economic entities financing the country’s leadership and the Belarussian aviation sector.” The Delegation of the European Union to Belarus shared the EU councils’ conclusions, which also called for “…The Council to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines”.

EU-Belarus relations are dependent on Belarus’s steps to respect universal freedoms, the rule of law and human rights. Despite this, the EU has been committed to strengthening mobility and contact between citizens of both nations, financial cooperation and trade relations. The Delegation of the EU to Belarus reports that the EU has been the largest grant donor in Belarus; since 2016, the EU’s financial allocation for Belarus has amounted to €30 million annual grant assistance. The Delegation also reports that the EU is Belarus’ 2nd trading partner. For these reasons, EU condemnation and imposition of new sanctions were a quick response that will hopefully be effective. As a large trading and financial partner, these EU-led sanctions can prove to be efficient in bringing changes to the regime. This in addition to the isolation that would occur if the EU is efficient in preventing Belarus access to EU airports and airspace, which will create the pressure needed for Lukashenko to reconsider his positions.

In the past, sanctions have not proven to make a drastic change to Lukashenko’s autocratic regime, but they have exerted enough pressure to have Lukashenko make concessions such as the release of some political prisoners. However, these sanctions to be extremely targeted and consistent, with the cooperation of all nations that disapprove of the actions of Belarus to achieve real efficiency. In addition, the EU and other western nations should reconsider the status of Belarus in international organizations. Per the U.S. Department of State, Belarus is a member of the United Nations, Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Eurasian Economic Union, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Additionally, Belarus is also an observer of the World Trade Organization. These international organizations usually bring advantages to nations that are members. These organizations also have their requirements and conditions for joining or remaining as members, and this is something that should be used as leverage to deal with nations who commit violations of human rights as well as international norms.