Alongside working to confront Lukashenka, the EU should offer respite to those threatened by his dictatorship.
In real life things happen no scriptwriter could dream up, such as the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk. It was not only about getting hold of the journalist Raman Pratasyevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, but also about sending a threatening signal to all Belarusians: no one is safe; the arm of the KGB is long; anyone can expect persecution and arrest.
The confession videos of Pratasyevich and Sapega released shortly after their detention recalled the era of Stalinist show trials. Indeed, the Belarusian dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, summed up the confrontation with the west in his meeting with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, last Friday, by paraphrasing a famous Stalin quote: ‘There are no heights that the Bolsheviks did not take—and so shall we.’
Sanctions against Lukashenka and Belarus are now the order of the day. The aim must be to hit the regime and its henchmen hard—personally, politically and economically.
Belarus had largely disappeared from the headlines in recent months and the usual sobering routine of dealing with stabilised dictatorships had taken hold in Brussels. But the country is once again at the centre of European attention. With unprecedented speed and unity by European Union standards, sharp protests were voiced and immediate flight bans announced.
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More far-reaching economic sanctions are planned. For once, there is a common will to act decisively. But which measures would not only be decisive but also effective?
As long as Russia, in particular, but also Ukraine, Kazakhstan, China, India and/or Brazil do not join, it cannot be assumed that the sanctions will lead to changes in Lukashenka’s behaviour. They represent a punishment for the regime and a signal of moral support for the opposition. They are right and important in view of the escalation Lukashenka is pursuing: his provocations require a firm response. But a continuous tightening of the sanctions screw will not change the balance of power, at least in the short term.
Ultimately, it will increase Belarusian dependence on Russia. Putin will, undoubtedly, seize such an opportunity to consolidate Russian geopolitical influence, regardless of the financial costs involved.
The sanctions also have some undesirable side-effects. The disruption of air links makes it more difficult for ordinary people, including opposition members, to have contacts with foreign countries. Land routes to Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine were already largely closed for private citizens, under the pretext of Covid-19.
The desirable isolation of the regime must be accompanied by an opening of Europe to the Belarusian people. Its citizens must experience here and now that Europe stands by their side and helps them.
In that context, the promise by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to support a democratic Belarus with €3 billion does not really help. If the protest movement had the political power to overthrow Lukashenka, it would do so even without the three billion pledge—while as long as the security and repressive apparatus remains loyal to the dictator, even a promise of billions from Brussels to follow change will not help.
The support programmes for Belarusian civil society, the backing for independent media and the scholarship programmes for Belarusian students launched by the EU and individual member states are important immediate measures. They should be maintained and expanded.
But with the KGB going door to door to intimidate, persecute and arrest democracy activists, we need a stronger European signal that the Belarusian people don´t walk alone. Europe needs to welcome Belarusian citizens who courageously stand up for democracy and freedom.
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As long as Lukashenka denies Belarusians the right to vote, Europe should give them the opportunity to vote with their feet. Nothing delegitimises a government more than when it loses its people. The exodus of specialists and skilled workers is also likely to have a greater and more lasting impact on the Belarusian economy than any other economic sanctions. At the same time, such an opportunity would offer protection to those living in constant fear of the security forces persecuting everybody who protests against Lukashenka.
The EU or individual member states in the immediate or indirect neighbourhood, such as Poland or Germany, should lift visa requirements and grant residence and work permits on humanitarian grounds to people from Belarus, as long as Lukashenka is in power. As an immediate measure, a quota of at least 100,000 places should be made available. Rapid access to the labour market in the host countries should be supported by appropriate language training and integration measures.
Europe is strongest when it lives up to its values. Offering people living next door a safe haven as they are harassed, persecuted, arrested and tortured for demanding freedom and democracy is imperative on humanitarian grounds. And not doing so would be a big political mistake: credibility is the ammunition of ‘soft’ power.
Opening the door would offer concrete help and a personal perspective to many Belarusians in this difficult situation. It would also prevent, as an unintended result of the sanctions, an unwanted isolation of the Belarusian people from Europe.
One might argue that a mass exodus of dissident citizens weakens the opposition in the country. Lukashenka gets rid of his harshest critics and the country loses a critical generation. The chances of the protest movement to succeed will be stronger if they stay. Such heartless paternalism on the part of armchair revolutionaries in cosy Europe would however not be convincing. This is not about encouraging people to leave but offering those who are tired, intimidated or in outright danger an opportunity to escape for the moment from a reckless regime.
But the EU should design such a support programme in a way that does not lead to a permanent exodus of the best and brightest. The duration of residence and work permits should be limited from the outset and should end as soon as Lukashenka is history. Instead of causing a long-term ‘brain drain’, this could, if properly designed, be a crucial building-block for an eastern partnership with a democratic Belarus.
From the beginning, the offer to stay and work in an EU member state should be combined with credible incentives for people to go back home and help build a democratic and economically successful, post-Lukashenka Belarus. Returnees should be entitled to receive their own as well as their employer’s social-insurance contributions and the income tax they paid while in the EU for their new start in a democratic Belarus. Part of the mooted €3 billion in aid would be well spent in this way.
These direct personal transfers would be a corruption-free and unconditional support for a democratic Belarus—and an investment in good neighbourliness for the future.