On 28 June, Belarus announced new travel restrictions, essentially closing the nation’s borders. Under these new guidelines, the government will prevent Belarusians with long-term residence permits in other countries from leaving Belarus. The government claims these restrictions are temporary and meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but they are most likely intended to halt Belarusian nationals fleeing political persecution.
In May, Belarus coerced a Ryanair flight into making an emergency landing in Minsk to arrest Raman Pratasevich, the co-founder of the anti-Lukashenko Nexta media channel and prominent opposition organizer. In response, the United States and European Union blocked most flights to and over Belarus. Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, retaliated by suspending flights to the EU. Recently, President Alexander Lukashenko also closed the border with Ukraine. To justify this policy he claimed, without evidence, that arms were being smuggled in from Ukraine to help overthrow him. As a result of these tensions, leaving Belarus is now nearly impossible; Lukashenko de facto closed its borders to the world.
Beyond just restricting flights, the EU, United Kingdom, Canada, and U.S. responded to the Ryanair flight incident by imposing sanctions on Belarus. The EU sanctioned Belarus’s largest export industries, and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Belarusian state-owned enterprises. Belarus retaliated by cutting cooperation with the EU over reducing illegal immigration, and Lukashenko pulled the country out of the Eastern Partnership program.
In response to pulling out of the agreement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya—Belarus’s exiled opposition leader—stated that “[her] team and all democratic forces will continue to work with our European partners and will do everything to make sure that our country is represented by those who really have the right to speak on people’s behalf.” In other words, she remained committed to working with the EU and democratic forces within Belarus. Russia, Belarus’s closest and most important ally, doubled down on its support for Lukashenko. On 1 July, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia “will continue to provide comprehensive assistance to the brotherly Belarusian people in the current political situation” and during the current sanctions battle.
Alexander Lukashenko’s actions represent a clear escalation of authoritarianism. Despite brutally suppressing dissent in the past, this de facto closing of Belarus’s borders represents a new level of state control over the daily lives of Belarusians. He is closing the borders to scare future dissident voices into submission. These policies make it clear that opposition voices will not be able to flee the country if targeted by the government. In response, the EU and U.S. should explicitly support the Coordination Council, a non-governmental organization created by Tsikhanouskaya, to support a democratic transfer of power. Through coordinated action with the West, this organization can successfully gain enough support to lead internal opposition to Lukashenko while keeping good relations with the West.
By distancing himself from Europe, Lukashenko is strengthening ties with Russia. This pivot will not bode well for the region. By getting closer to Russia, Belarus will scare off and prevent beneficial economic investment from the EU. Moreover, Russia will increasingly be able to use Belarus to coerce and pressure nearby Eastern European countries like Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland.
The de facto closing of Belarusian borders is another tactic used by Lukashenko to remain in power. He assumed office in 1994, and is known as “Europe’s last dictator.” After the Soviet Union collapsed, he kept many institutions intact, including state-owned media, a command economy, and the KGB. However, Lukashenko has lost popular support because of corruption, poverty, and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, during the August 2020 elections, he rigged the results through ballot stuffing and other anti-democratic election tactics to hold onto power. Consequently, the country quickly erupted in protest, but Lukashenko brutally suppressed dissent.
Fear for her family’s safety forced the main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to flee the country after the election. Moreover, the U.S. and EU did not recognize Lukashenko as the legitimate election winner. Since the election chaos, the Belarusian government has cracked down on dissent, including raiding critical media outlets and arresting journalists. Therefore, these border closings are yet another effort by Lukashenko’s illegitimate regime to hold onto power by restricting Belarusians’ movement and suppressing dissent through fear.
Moving forward, Lukashenko’s regime will likely become more reactionary as dissent grows against the dictatorship. Although his draconian policies will mitigate opposition strength in the short term, they will alienate Belarusian nationals in the long run. Without public support, his regime will have a difficult time surviving. As he tries to hold onto power, Lukashenko will inevitably pivot more to Russia and distance the country away from the rest of Europe.