The United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada expanded sanctions on Belarus, following increased human rights abuses by Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. Government crackdowns of protests, jailing and torturing of journalists, and the forced landing of a commercial Ryanair flight containing dissident journalist Roman Protasevich proved that previous sanctions were insufficient in curtailing Lukashenko’s actions. This expansion of sanctions, affecting organizations as well as more culpable individuals, seeks to pressure Lukashenko into releasing all political prisoners, and engaging the democratic opposition. These sanctions include travel bans, asset freezes of senior Belarusian officials, businessmen, and entities that aid the regime’s oppressive tactics. Now, around 166 people and 15 entities are sanctioned, with another round of sanctions possibly coming.
According to CNN, the partnering forces said in a joint statement that they were “united in our deep concern regarding the Lukashenko regime’s continuing attacks on human rights, fundamental freedoms, and international law.” Josep Borrell Fontelles, EU foreign policy chief, explained that they “didn’t use economic sanctions in the beginning because we know they affect everyone, because they affect the economy.” Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, explained their goal on Twitter: “[W]e want to make Lukashenko’s regime run dry financially.”
The expansion of sanctions is a proportionate response to Belarus’ increased authoritarian activities since the EU initially chose not to impose sanctions on entities, due to the negative ripple effect they have on the economy. The Ryanair incident signaled Belarus’ resolve to silence dissidents was strong enough to use political and military force, in order to ground a commercial airline, as well as jail and torture political opponents. As Lukashenko’s regime grows in tenacity and doesn’t seem to exhibit any apprehension in potentially violating international law, the initial round of sanctions proved inefficient in curtailing his activities. Consequently, expanding the sanctions to entities and more individuals that bankroll the oppressive government appears a more productive, last-ditch response.
Further, Maas’ tweet threatening to make the regime run dry financially is an aggressive message that fails to account for Belarus’ citizens. We must not forget that Belarusians’ democratic interests are a key motivator for the sanctions, so the partnering forces are responsible in ensuring that they are not suffering. After all, Belarus is not solely composed of political actors and billionaire businessmen. The goal is to ensure Belarusians’s freedom, and not devastate them economically in the process.
Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed Europe’s last dictator, has been Belarus’ president since its establishment in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He rigged the presidential election in 2020, naming himself the elected president by 80% of the vote for a sixth term. Protests erupted, and an estimated 35,000 Belarusians were arrested. United Nations experts received 480 cases reporting torture and false imprisonment and 17 journalists were stripped of their foreign network accreditation. In September, the UN called upon Belarus to stop torturing detainees – the most important human rights issue at the time.
Yet Lukashenko’s oppressive activities took on a new dimension when he flirted with breaking international law in May, by grounding a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius. It was boarded by Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend. Belarus claimed that Hamas sent an email to the Minsk airport, alleging the flight was armed with a bomb that targeted speakers from the Delphi Economic Forum. Then, a Belarus jet flew up alongside the commercial flight and further urged them to ground the plane in Minsk, where Protasevich and his girlfriend were immediately arrested and detained. Protasevich is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of NEXTA, a Polish news channel that released encrypted videos of the protests. Now, he is showing signs of torture after appearing on Belarusian state television, and being apparently coerced into admitting plans to topple Lukashenko. The new round of sanctions seeks to pressure Lukashenko enough to release dissidents like Protasevich.
The newer sanctions target more businessmen and their companies, specifically those with Lukashenko ties. The Biden Administration also sanctioned high-ranking officials like the state’s prosecutor, spokesperson, and chairwoman of the Parliament. Other sanctions will affect several sectors of the economy dominated by state-owned companies, such as the potash and fertilizer industries. It will also impose trade restrictions on tobacco and petroleum, and prohibit EU operators from lending services to the government. Simply, Belarus’ economy will be severely disrupted – as will the companies that fund Lukasheknko’s activities. As mentioned in Reuters, some EU actors like Brussels were hesitant to impose such harsh sanctions in fear of negatively affecting the population. Yet some Belarusians, such as the exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, are pleased with harsher sanctions, deeming them the only way to achieve their aims.
The partnering forces’ move sends a strong message to Lukashenko that his actions will not be tolerated. Although taking away the means for his government to continue committing human rights abuses is a productive step, Belarusian voices cannot be silenced. They must feel empowered and supported to pave their own democratic future, and not torn down by economic restraint. However, the EU also needs the support of Belarusians in order to effectively disempower Lukashenko. Ultimately, the purpose of the sanctions that strive to unfetter Belarusians cannot be neglected.
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