By Pavel Slunkin, ECFR

The arrest of Raman Pratasevich changed the calculus for EU capitals, which agreed new sanctions with real bite. The EU could finally be succeeding in its search for strategic sovereignty

Over the last 30 years, relations between the European Union and Belarus under Lukashenka have gone through alternating periods of freeze and thaw. And, whenever the Belarusian regime felt its grip on power threatened, it would always reach for its tools of repression. This is what happened after the falsified presidential election in 2020; yet, in response, over the last year the EU showed little ingenuity in its approach. It regularly expressed its “deepest concern” and called on Lukashenka to hold new free and fair elections – which would really have meant him voluntarily surrendering to prison; this obviously was never going to happen. Brussels also imposed sanctions on Belarusian officials – but these had no bearing on economic interests either inside Belarus or inside the union. Naturally, today Lukashenka continues to crack down on civil society in Belarus and put his opponents in jail.

There are rational explanations for the EU’s approach. There have long been discussions in Europe about the effectiveness in principle of economic sanctions and their ethical dimension. Over the last year, the main arguments of those opposed to dealing a blow to the Belarusian economy have concentrated on this risk of failure, and indeed on the risk of actually increasing Minsk’s dependence on Moscow. Others maintained that it would be unacceptable to “punish ordinary people”, who are already under the yoke of an authoritarian regime. However, the arrest in May of Raman Pratasevich, after the regime forcibly diverted a Ryanair flight, made clear that it is not only ordinary Belarusians who can fall victim to the aggression of Lukashenka’s Belarus, but EU citizens can be affected too.

The arrest has forced EU leaders to look at the political crisis afresh and change tack.  In recent months, European capitals began to talk about inflicting more severe punishment on the Lukashenka regime for its violation of international norms. And when additional sanctions were approved by the EU last week, they targeted the most profitable sectors of the Belarusian economy: oil, potash, and banking. To this new backdrop, the issue of ordinary Belarusians’ well-being had certainly receded; and Belarusian opposition leaders’ arguments that ordinary people are “ready to be patient” – to experience some pain for the longer-term gain of ousting Lukashenka – finally won a hearing among European politicians. The EU high representative for foreign and security policy Josep Borrell explained the logic of the new approach by comparing it to an omelette, which “one cannot make without breaking eggs”.

“Broken eggs” should not be understood only as a deterioration in the socio-economic situation of the Belarusians. Though the adopted sectoral sanctions are scheduled to come in over some time and will not hit the economy immediately, they will have implications for EU countries too. For example, Lithuania may experience multimillion-dollar losses following restrictions on trade in potash fertilisers, which it ships through its port of Klaipeda. The same sort of restrictions on oil products will hit Latvia in a similar way. The sanctions against the banking and telecommunications sectors directly affect the interests of Austrian firms, which had learned to benefit from cooperation with the Belarusian authorities. Economic consequences are inevitable for both sides.

But whether this new approach will bring the desired political results remains a very big question. On the one hand, examples abound from around the world of tough economic sanctions consolidating rather than weakening authoritarian regimes, simultaneously destroying a country’s economy and worsening human rights situations. On the other hand, the economic effects of blocking entire sectors of the Belarusian economy could bring about previously unseen reactions among the public but also among Belarus’s power structures. Even Lukashenka’s supporters see more and more clearly the ever-increasing cost for the country – and for their personal pockets – of him staying in power. The EU’s approach could also trigger new mistakes by the Belarusian authorities, provoked by emotional reactions by the Belarusian strongman to the worsening of his already unenviable position. The economic and political price of backing Lukashenka will also rise for Moscow, increasing budget spending and motivating Vladimir Putin to seek cheaper options to maintain his influence over Belarus. Together, all this could significantly change the balance of power in the political crisis – and, in turn, mean the EU plays a large role in finally resolving it.

But so far the Belarusian authorities are showing no signs of retreat. On the contrary, they suspended the country’s participation the Eastern Partnership and urged the EU ambassador to return to Brussels. Moreover, they also suspended the Readmission Agreement with the EU and are continuing to organise channels for migrants from Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries to pass through their territory and on into neighbouring Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, with the aim of creating a humanitarian crisis and forcing the EU to retreat instead. The number of illegal migrants at the Belarus-Lithuania border has already exceeded last year’s figures by more than sevenfold. The smuggling of cigarettes produced in Belarus is also breaking new records: since the beginning of the year, Lithuanian customs have seized more than 1.7 million packs at the border, whose value totals over €5m. Lukashenka is confident that this ‘bullish strategy’ – which has worked throughout his career – will work again.

However, this time it appears to be working against him. Such actions only reinforce the regime’s illegitimate status and are consolidating all EU members against it. Increased migration and smuggling enabled and encouraged by Belarus have already ceased to be matters of purely bilateral relations between it and neighbouring countries, but are now a problem on the eastern border for the entire EU and NATO. This is why there is now a feeling that the EU is ready to take risks and deliberately incur significant economic losses if this brings the end of the Lukashenka era closer. The simple reason is that the strategic cost of the military-political and humanitarian threats posed by the current Belarusian authorities for the EU may turn out to be much higher than potential financial losses. The EU is often criticised for its inability or unwillingness to become a true geopolitical force. But its most recent reaction to the Belarusian authorities shows that the EU has teeth and is ready to use them, even sacrificing some specific interests to do so. The Belarus crisis in many ways serves as a test for the EU of whether it is capable of learning from its mistakes and becoming a game-changing player in its own neighbourhood. And the new skills that Brussels is now acquiring in its clash with Minsk will, in time, no doubt prove useful to it in other regions of the world.