The dangerous game of democracy in Belarus

People protesting against violence in Belarus

Lawrence Pitts

Lawrence Pitts, originally from Nottingham, is a University of Birmingham postgraduate in Political Science. He focuses on international relations, diplomacy, geopolitics, conflict, and human rights. He also has an interest in political history, philosophy, and social anthropology.

5th November 2021

Liza Pooor

How the West might end up doing more harm than good. 

The West must find the seemingly elusive balance between punishment of Lukashenko and protection of the people. If possible, there is a chance for a democratic Belarus. But should the sanctions misfire, it is difficult to see things changing for most Belarussians.


When Belarus was banned from the Eurovision Song Contest 2021 for being too political, it was another indication, albeit subtle, of international support for democratic ideals in the country. Activism has been a perilous business in Belarus for over two decades, and now freedom is in further jeopardy, following the arrest and subsequent torture of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. Despite staunchly defending his decision to send military jets to divert the passenger plane with Protasevich onboard, and warning it was “only a matter of time” before other rebels got similar treatment, Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko must surely realise he is quickly running out of foreign friends. Yet new EU sanctions might end up being detrimental to those fighting the cause. 


The day after the forced redirection and landing of the flight in the capital, Minsk, the European Council responded to the arrest of Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sophia Sapega, by not only demanding their immediate release, but also for a ban on Belarussian and EU flights entering each other’s airspace, and instant economic sanctions. 


Even Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus for the last 27 years, so-called batska (“father”) of the nation, and seemingly unshakable strongman, must be feeling some international pressure. Lukashenko sounded as confident as ever as he denounced Western criticism, yet the diplomatic problems are piling up for what many call Europe’s last dictator.  Indeed, though the brutal muzzling of campaigners is not new, the Protasevich arrest might be the case which precipitates enough significant foreign condemnation to make a difference. 


Yet whilst the few calls for democracy within the country are at least gaining some traction and encouragement from outside, this is no indicator or guarantee for success. It is debatable how impactful international reaction will be. It is difficult to envisage meaningful political change in the country of just under 10 million, when critical journalism is so precarious a job. Lukashenko has a long history of disagreements with Europe, and is rarely persuaded to change his objectives; indeed, he arguably revels in his relative isolation. Western support is in danger of backfiring. It must be careful to not push Belarus even further adrift from democracy, thereby harming the majority on the receiving end of Lukashenko’s relentless dictatorship.


Looking at Lukashenko


In power since 1994, Lukashenko held a referendum in 1996 to form an entirely pro-Lukashenko government, one which the US and the EU refused to formally acknowledge on the grounds of anti-democratic elections. He accused the West of conspiring against Belarus, and blamed them for the collapse of the Belarussian rouble in 1998; he subsequently dismissed various foreign diplomats, and the EU placed a travel ban on him. If the EU hoped to discourage Lukashenko’s plans for authoritarianism, they were naively mistaken.


In 2003, Western relations further soured when associates of Saddam Hussein managed to secure Belarussian citizenship, and in 2004 when Lukashenko won a referendum to change presidential terms, thus affording him unlimited time as undisputed leader of the country. He has won all elections since by a huge majority. Yet international disdain has done little to deter him. Indeed, given his own cultural preferences, and opinions on homosexuality, feminism, and Hitler, he may have welcomed Western rejection. His increasing closeness to Putin and Russia during this period only intensified strains with Europe.  


With freedom of speech a foreign concept in Belarus, it was dangerous to run against Lukashenko by 2010. There were nine other candidates; seven would be arrested, and the other two physically assaulted. Violent protests erupted. Lukashenko won with nearly 80% of the vote but was accused of an undemocratic election process. His 2011 inauguration was boycotted by EU officials and global diplomats. 


2020 elections


Evidently undeterred by widespread finger-wagging, Lukashenko declared his sixth term as President in August 2020. The international community claimed events were neither “free nor fair”. Indeed, opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who campaigned for a democratic coalition, trade unions, and European intervention, believed she had legally won. After encouraging peaceful protests, she was held in exile before fleeing to neighbouring Lithuania. 


Other, ordinary Belarussians had no such escape route. Captured protestors described being beaten, tortured, and abused, by officials who “knew no limits”. 


Two weeks after the election, the EU officially announced they did not recognise Lukashenko as President of Belarus, the understandable response to an election so tainted by accusations of rigging.


The backlash briefly appeared to unsettle even ironman Lukashenko, as he asserted he would step down once a new constitution can be drawn up. Yet the West would be wise to receive his promises with a healthy dose of scepticism that this is nothing more than an appeasing publicity stunt. Any such agreement is yet to be signed; besides, manoeuvres in Belarus’ political structure suggest little would change. By May 2021, all that had been signed was a decree to ensure martial law would be imposed, and power would be in the hands of Lukashenko allies on the Security Council, if the President was killed, or otherwise unfit.


It should be clear to anyone with eyes on Belarus that Alexander Lukashenko has no intention of forfeiting any of the power he has acquired in the last three decades any time soon. 


Still, Europe has tried what it can to impose itself and discourage pro-Lukashenko sentiment. In March 2021, the Eurovision Song Contest banned two Belarussian entries as both were considered overtly political. The first entry included lyrics such as, “I will teach you to toe the line”, whilst the second option mocked the 2020 election demonstrations. It was an admirable, if gentle, ruling. Evidently such messages from a country deemed unlawfully governed are unwelcome.


Following the Protasevich plane “hijacking”, a similar decision resulted in the European cycling championships, which were originally meant to be in Minsk in July, being moved elsewhere. 


Is there any hope for democracy?


It may displease him but being banned from singing contests and sports events will not bother Lukashenko for long. More serious sanctions might, but he continues to ignore the West regardless. In May 2021, opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend boarded a flight from Athens bound for Lithuania. Protasevich, editor and photographer, has been a prominent activist and vocal critic of the regime since 2011. Lukashenko personally ordered the Ryanair flight to land in Belarus instead, arrested Protasevich and Sapega, condemned them as terrorists, and they now face the death penalty. 


Despite long-term measures designed to curb Lukashenko’s taste for dictatorship, the EU has failed to democratise Belarus, and has even arguably provoked Lukashenko’s ruthlessness, at the expense of ordinary citizens. Nothing has changed since the first sanctions in 1996; if anything, the situation has only got worse. Human rights in Belarus are an international cause for concern. Independent media, lawyers, activists, and rights groups, face harassment and state pressure. There are limits on expression, and religion, and a poor record of women’s rights. In an atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and control, there are increasing restrictions on internet freedoms. And as of 2021, Belarus is the only country in Europe to use the death penalty.


It is tempting to support democratic institutions which overthrow totalitarian forces. Yet Europe must tread carefully. Historically, the more opposition there is to Lukashenko, the more merciless he becomes, and the more Belarussians suffer.


Whilst the virtually mid-air arrest of Protasevich and Sapega is indeed appalling, it is worth noting that since the 2020 unrest around 35,000 other dissidents have also been detained by the state.  


Yet imposing more EU sanctions threatens to harm the poorest in Belarus. Lukashenko is seemingly used to them by now, and he and his cronies have found ways to survive, and indeed, thrive, despite endless punishments. It is the unequipped, often scared-into-silence masses, who will bear the brunt. 


In the past, restrictions such as travel bans and arms embargoes were often dismissed as tough but ultimately empty and ineffectual threats. The latest sanctions are the harshest yet by the EU. They include restricted airspace, constraints against officials and state-run companies and officials, all of which are friends of Lukashenko by default, and limiting wood, cement, and gas exports. In what is arguably the EU’s severest move yet against Lukashenko, they have deliberately targeted Belarus’s potash sector, which makes up 20% of global supply. Sanctioning overseas trade of the potassium-rich salt used in fertilizer will lose Belarus a major source of foreign currency. Perhaps the EU has finally found Lukashenko’s weak spot.


He will eventually feel the pinch. The restrictions on their airspace could lose the state a further €70,000 a day. Even Lukashenko, as resourceful as he is, must find this latest development difficult to manipulate to his advantage. He can afford to not care about his reputation only up to a point.


The West is demanding free elections in Belarus, but to achieve this the EU must continue to specifically target Lukashenko and his support network. This is a delicate task. So far, sanctions have failed to persuade him to adopt democracy. Perhaps all they have done is increase his unflinching cruelty. The West must find the seemingly elusive balance between punishment of Lukashenko and protection of the people. If possible, there is a chance for a democratic Belarus. But should the sanctions misfire, it is difficult to see things changing for most Belarussians.  


Lukashenko has already survived nearly 30 years of punishments, isolation, ridicule, and condemnation. Seemingly egged on by international outcry, not shamed by it, he is more brutal the more he is denounced. Despite the current curbs on his international status, Lukashenko looks set to continue to exercise his authoritarian domestic power for now. 

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