Ramūnas Vilpišauskas. Will stricter Western sanctions push Belarus toward Russia?

Ramūnas Vilpišauskas
Ramūnas Vilpišauskas, DELFI / Kiril Čachovskij

With the EU considering another sanctions package against Belarusian officials and organisations, the concern is rising that they could further strengthen Russia’s influence on Belarus. This risk exists, but it shouldn’t become a reason for the West to avoid sanctions, which could have a significant impact on the regime’s financial state.

After the forced landing in Minsk of a flight travelling from Athens to Vilnius, an act described by Lithuanian and other EU politicians as “an act of state terrorism”, the EU took to drafting another sanctions package against Belarusian officials and organisations. This is now the fourth one since the Belarusian presidential elections in August last year, which are held to be neither free nor fair.

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Declarations from EU institutions suggest that this time, the sanctions could apply to not only Belarusian officials and organisations but also economic sectors. Such intentions strengthened discussions on whether imposing sanctions, which could cause significant financial losses for the Belarusian regime, might push the country into even greater dependency on Russia. In other words, by doing this, would the West be helping Moscow fully convince Minsk to complete the two countries’ integration as long proposed by Russia?

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The risk that Belarus will become even more dependent on Russia in terms of its trade relations and financial commitments does exist. The leader of Belarus has previously reached out a number of times to Russia once Belarus’ economic condition and public finances deteriorated. That said, this would happen after attempts to improve economic relations with the West, sometimes even having started negotiations over loans from the International Monetary Fund. This way, A. Lukashenko has attempted a number of times to improve his negotiations position in both relations with Russia and the West.

However, there is no longer room for such negotiations games. Already last year’s events in Belarus became the limit, which, when crossed, convinced Lithuanian and most EU country leaders that the incentive (“carrot”) policy was not justified with this Belarusian leader and his supporters.

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The forced landing in Minsk of an aircraft flying from one EU country to another last month proved this point again. Thus, A. Lukashenko no longer has either any options or reasons to “warm” relations with the West because it is impossible without doing what would mean the loss of his power and perhaps also his property and freedom. Thus, in his bid to remain in power, he only has his ally in Moscow and support from authoritarian countries such as China. By the way, it appears that Minsk is drawing inspiration from other autocrats, seeking to exploit migrant flows for hostile purposes against EU countries.

Moscow has already displayed that it will not refuse financial aid to Minsk, concurrently reminding of the plans for a union state. If the EU and other Western states such as the USA were to impose economic sanctions on key Belarusian companies dealing in oil product and fertiliser exports, limit international financial transactions, Belarus would have to seek ways to compensate the financial losses and Russia’s role would become even more important. That said, greater integration with Russia would also mean restrictions on A. Lukashenko’s power and would risk a significant part of Belarus’ citizens becoming increasingly critical of Russia itself.

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However, the most important reason as to why this risk should not become a basis for the EU to abstain from imposing impactful sanctions is the need to show that actions such as forcing an aircraft landing will not be tolerated.

Economic sanctions have a variety of purposes – signalising support for those experiencing violence, showing that liberal democratic values are taken seriously and, in particular, signalling to the authoritarian countries’ elites that certain actions that violate international agreements and value principles are unacceptable and will inevitably come at a cost to perpetrators.

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In other words, the Western response is important as a deterrent from similar acts of “state terror attacks” in the future. If this is not responded to with sanctions, which are capable of significant losses for the Belarusian regime, in the future, not only this but also other authoritarian regimes might act similarly when persecuting citizens discontent with their governments, endangering both them and EU citizens.

At the same time, the EU should take heed of the negative side effects and risks presented by such sanctions. Included among them – potential negative economic consequences for the Belarusian people who are opposed to the current regime, as well as potential negative consequences for companies in the EU (In Lithuania’s case – Lietuvos Geležinkeliai, Klaipėda Seaport’s forwarding companies, the tourism sector and so on), as well as increased incentives for Belarus to further tie itself together with Russia (though some would say that these ties have long been so strong that little else can change in this regard).

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After evaluating the potential impact of sanctions, it is advised to seek to minimise it and for this, it is crucial that all EU countries (as well as the USA, UK and other Western countries) would coordinate their response so as to minimise the chances of Minsk circumventing the sanctions. The fact that the forced aircraft landing in Minsk impacted in one way or another the interests of a dozen EU countries increases the likelihood that this time, they will find it easier to reach consensus on a response.

Meanwhile, the risk of increased Belarusian dependence on Russia means that EU states should also consider their policies toward Russia. Numerous signs indicate that Moscow is supportive of Minsk taking actions, which are unpalatable for the EU. Thus, the question should be raised of whether current EU sanctions on Russian officials who are linked to criminal actions against their own and foreign citizens are sufficient.

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Shouldn’t the question of Western economic relations with Russia be resolved, including trade in energy resources? The answer to this question will be the real test to reveal how seriously EU countries view the values they declare.

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