The Baltic states imposed travel sanctions on President Lukashenko and 29 other Belarus officials. They were accused of aiding vote-rigging and violence against protesters challenging his landslide election victory over Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on 9 August. His inclusion in the sanctions was intended to prompt other European Union bodies reluctant to hold him accountable to follow suit. According to Die Welt, while the European Union plans a list of individuals to sanction, Lukashenko’s exclusion is expected, amid caution of provoking Russian intervention, and Germany and France’s argument that “communication with him must stay open.”
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu told BNS the sanctions “demonstrated seriousness” in addressing Belarus’s human rights violations. While further plans are in development, these sanctions ban officials from high positions, like the president’s office and central election commission, from travelling to Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. Belarus has responded with reciprocal sanctions against the three countries. According to Reuters, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei told reporters in Moscow that the Baltic sanctions were “absolutely unacceptable,” and warned retaliation against any country imposing further sanctions.
Lukashenko’s alleged election rigging, refusal to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power with the Co-ordination Council, and aggressive response against protesters, has attracted international attention and escalated Belarusian domestic conflict. Amid unrest and clashes between protesters and police, approximately 7,000 people including dozens of journalists have been detained, hundreds have been injured, and at least four are dead.
The Baltic actions are the first to punish Lukashenko’s behaviour, indicating impatience with Western apprehension. While he proposed conceding power and holding new elections after a constitutional referendum to pacify tension, many are skeptical. Although Belarus’s relations with long-time ally Russia were recently strained due to decreased Russian funding for Belarus, Vladimir Putin has offered military assistance, admonished protesters, and warned against European retaliation. He alleged that “there are no clear explanations, what exactly has happened, and what is this [Co-ordination] Council’s program after all,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed “that it makes no sense” to establish contacts with Co-ordination Council representatives until “they establish their structure in accordance with Belarusian law” and clarify their purpose.
The Baltic sanctions represent a new phase of the conflict in Belarus’s election controversy. Protests have erupted due to Lukashenko’s handling of Covid-19 and crackdowns on other key rivals who threatened his reign, such as the arrest of former banker and potential challenger, Viktor Babariko. Following the election, Tsikhanouskaya rejected the results and encouraged supporters to protest against Lukashenko’s rule. While the sanctions punish the misconduct of Lukashenko’s regime, they are proving ineffective for de-escalating conflict in Belarus and discouraging aggressive behaviour. Police continue to attack and arrest protesters, while journalists still face repression. The sanctions also failed to encourage dialogue between Lukashenko, Tsikhanouskaya, and representatives from the Co-ordination Council.
Ironically, the sanctions may have unintentionally evoked more aggression, as Belarus quickly responded with reciprocal sanctions against the Baltic states. The United States, Canada, and Great Britain will most likely face the same response to their prospective sanctions against Belarus. Ultimately, the Baltic efforts to punish Belarus may result in multiple bodies imposing sanctions on one another, while conflict persists and Lukashenko continues to hold and abuse his power.
In support of Lukashenko, Russia denounced the Baltic sanctions as “unacceptable,” and previously warned against European intervention. On Friday, talks were held between Lavrov and United States Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. According to TASS Russian News Agency, when discussing Belarusian affairs and foreign interference, Lavrov remarked “if the United States has a certain view on some ideas about Belarus, great, but let us not interfere with what is called the political process in Belarus.” Russia’s lingering threat poses a risk that requires consideration when addressing Lukashenko’s regime, to avoid escalating conflict. Despite embracing Russian aid, he should not overlook the possibility of Putin’s seemingly charitable actions being ulterior motives to re-establish Russian influence in Belarus.
Two weeks before the election, Belarus arrested 33 alleged mercenaries from the Russian military company, Wagner Group. In addition, Russian state-backed television channel RT provided journalists to replace hundreds of Belarusian staff, who resigned to protest Lukashenko’s rule. According to Bloomberg, George Barros, who works at the Institute for the Study of War, observed video montages depicting the United States and NATO instigating unrest in Belarus. State TV has attempted “to humanize Belarusian officials” and portrayed protesters “threatening the families and lives of security personnel,” despite mounting evidence showing police torture and brutality. Putin has leveraged Belarusian media to disseminate propaganda, allowing him to use it against Lukashenko if he seeks to establish a stronghold in Belarus. While Lukashenko has blamed other European countries like Ukraine and Poland for protests and unrest without evidence, he should not overlook past tension amid Russia’s alleged attempts to destabilize the country. If he values Belarusian sovereignty, Lukashenko should be skeptical about the integrity of Putin’s assistance.
The Baltic sanctions, and those pending from the West, seem unlikely to evoke Lukashenko’s concession of power. His regime is contentious, and most likely views sanctions as adversarial. While efforts are needed to prevent escalated conflict with Russia, the West should demonstrate a steadfast interest in a peaceful resolution. This can only be attained by inclusion and expanded dialogue. Currently, Belarus has declared reciprocal sanctions against the Baltic states and will likely respond similarly to Western sanctions. If such exchanges persist, all bodies involved may view their opponent’s action with resentment.
These “tit-for-tat” tactics will present a new challenge towards assembling authorities among opposing factions due to travel bans. The additional efforts needed to undo these sanctions, and rebuild trust, may inhibit potential dialogue. This will not resolve the ongoing conflict in Belarus, or placate Lukashenko into conceding power. Therefore, the Baltic states should rescind the sanctions, request for their removal from Belarus’s sanctions, and emphasize willingness to communicate with the officials they targeted. The West should also avoid additional sanctions.
Belarus’s aggressive international response, and Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, should discourage confrontational Western reaction. While he should not be excused for the brutal crackdown of protesters and potential election rigging, they need to emphasize the desire to de-escalate tension and respect for Belarusian autonomy. In so doing, perhaps they can assuage his regime’s aggressive disposition. Recently, Lukashenko informed supporters that NATO forces were positioned on the border between Lithuania and Poland, to which he responded by sending the military in the vicinity. Despite denials by NATO, reports indicate 500 United States troops and dozens of tanks arriving in Lithuania on Saturday, with claims they were pre-planned and part of military exercises.
The timing is suspicious, particularly amid the recent alarm of Russian military intervention. To further demonstrate an interest in de-escalating the conflict, the United States should offer to remove these forces from the border. In addition, other European countries, like France, Germany, Italy, and Poland, with plans to send up to 1,000 troops and military planes in the coming weeks, should also cancel these military exercises. In exchange, Lukashenko and those in his regime should agree to negotiations with the Tsikhanouskaya and the Co-ordination Council.
If the West can mollify Belarus and maintain communication with Lukashenko and critical individuals, they should emphasize Russia’s threat to sovereignty. When writing for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Nigel Gould-Davies observed that part of Putin’s motivation is precedence. By his next election, he will have ruled for 24 years, close behind Lukashenko’s 26-year reign. If a country like Belarus, vastly similar in culture, linguistics, and ethnicity, is toppled amid fraudulent election results, this phenomenon may also occur in Russia. They have tried to take advantage of Belarus’s strategic location, sharing a border with three European Union and NATO countries, as well as Ukraine.
Lukashenko has also disputed Putin’s attempts to implement Union State provisions, and recently accused him of trying to destabilize the country by assisting Tsikhanouskaya in July. His continued rule, inviting further Russian influence, poses a greater threat to Belarusian sovereignty than Tsikhanouskaya’s potential reign. Given Lukashenko and Tsikhanouskaya’s agreement on independence from Russia, and despite his desire for assistance from Putin, the West should encourage dialogue between both parties, and the Co-ordination Council.
When discerning punishment for Lukashenko’s misconduct, all parties need to determine the decision in Belarus’s best interest. Harsh punishment will incite Lukashenko’s aggression and further entrench his clutch to power. Perhaps, in exchange for following through on his empty pledge for holding a referendum, thereby conceding power, Lukashenko may receive exoneration for his actions. While his actions are indisputably inexcusable, the objective should be to usher his removal and de-escalate tension and violence in Belarus. Empowering the opportunity to concede power, on his terms, maybe the best approach for a peaceful resolution.
Lukashenko is the only president of Belarus since its first election in 1994. Given the nation’s Soviet history, and close Russian ties, obtaining Lukashenko’s cooperation to concede power and exercise peaceful transfer towards the opposing party would create a significant event in Belarusian history. While this struggle may be legitimately appalling to Western democratic ideology, such an event would mark significant progress for a country like Belarus. It is also a turning point for which Tsikhanouskaya has been striving. She, the West, and representatives from the Co-ordination Council need to maintain sensitivity in Belarus’s situation and guide Lukashenko into stepping down.
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