Europe’s response to Belarus after a year of protest and repression

By Bryan T. Bayne. Special thanks to Euroculture alumna Ala Sivets, from Politzek.me, who provided valuable commentary and insight.

Ever since Alexander Lukashenka rigged the results of the Belarusian elections on August 9, 2020, his country has been mired in turmoil. The state has doggedly persecuted activists and protestors and increasingly committed grotesque Human Rights abuses, culminating in the hijacking of a Ryanair plane bound to Lithuania to arrest an exiled journalist last May. Predictably, these actions have led to harsh condemnation from Western powers and some action, chiefly imposing sanctions against leading figures in Minsk. But to what degree have powers such as the European Union (EU) confronted Lukashenka’s regime? 

In the months following the rigged vote, more than 30,000 Belarusian citizens were jailed. Police infiltrated Telegram groups — used to organize the protests — to find and arrest activists. There are reports of students being arrested simply because they had the app, despite not taking part in the protests. In jail, protestors have been beaten, tortured, and raped; they have been forced to sign false confessions. Ordinary citizens have been arrested for wearing red-and-white socks that resembled the flag. Journalists have been gagged and whatever semblance of media freedom once existed is but a distant dream now. Teachers and professors critical of the regime have been forced to resign. Students have been expelled from university because they joined a national strike movement. Lawyers defending jailed activists have reported intimidation attempts and even being prevented from speaking to their clients. The state has expanded the use of administrative sanctions to prevent lawyers from doing their jobs and even disbarred four attorneys, making a complete mockery of the rule of law. The list of abuses is so extensive that the United Nations have described the situation as a “full-on assault on Human Rights.”

To make matters worse, the persecution is no longer limited to Belarus. The country tried to force Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to return home from Tokyo against her wishes, prompting dramatic scenes at the airport and ultimately leading Poland to provide the Olympian and her family with a humanitarian visa. Her crime was complaining on social media that she had been enrolled in a race she had not prepared herself to compete in—a dangerous attitude because Lukashenka’s son is the head of the Belarusian Olympic Committee. The same day Krystsina sought asylum, the regime cracked down on another exiled dissident. Vitaly Shishov, founder of an NGO that helps Belarusian activists find new homes abroad, was found dead hanging in a park. He had reported being followed by the Belarusian KGB (yes, the secret police still goes by its Soviet name) and having received death threats; the Ukrainian police believes he was murdered and the crime was made to look like a suicide. In short, Lukashenka wants dissidents to live in fear, wherever they may be.

Vitaly Shishov’s NGO is not the only Belarusian organization abroad. Activists in exile have created organizations and projects to support political prisoners in Belarus by fundraising in the West to help cover their legal costs as well as lobby European politicians to take action. Besides carrying on with the protest movement despite the violent crackdown, activists abroad have also mobilized themselves, creating solidarity networks and lobbying groups. Tortured and jailed activists and journalists who hold dual citizenship or a permanent residence in the EU have taken legal action in countries like Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and Lithuania. National courts seem poised to take action.  Opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya became the symbol of the Belarusian protest movement abroad and frequently meets Western leaders, including a recent visit to the White House where she personally urged Joe Biden to slap harsher sanctions on Belarusian individuals and organizations perpetrating human rights abuses. 

Perhaps the greatest proof that the events in Belarus have drawn unanimous condemnation in the West is that the American Congress created a bipartisan “Friends of Belarus Caucus” to support activists. In an age of toxic ultra-partisanship in which Democrats and Republicans seem to disagree about everything, the fact that they put their differences aside to create such a caucus demonstrates how outraged Western leaders are at Lukashenka. But besides verbal condemnation, what actions have the West in general and the EU in particular taken against perpetrators of Human Rights abuses in Belarus?

Sadly, not much. The EU has imposed sanctions on 166 individuals and 15 entities in Belarus that are connected with human rights abuses. These individuals had their assets abroad frozen and are subject to a travel ban. The UK and the US imposed similar sanctions on mostly the same people. The EU sensibly closed its airspace to Belarusian airlines and advised European carriers to avoid flying over Belarusian territory. 

Unfortunately, though, these are not likely to produce much of an impact, however irritating they may be to Belarusian officials. Unlike the rest of the former Soviet space, Belarus maintained most of the Soviet economic system in place. It is isolated and rarely engages with the West; Russia accounts for most of its international trade, and Putin stands firm with Lukashenka. To make matters worse, Germany seems likely to strengthen Russia by completing the controversial Nordstream II pipeline, consequently reducing the overall impact of EU sanctions and influence over Belarus.

Besides applying sanctions, European powers have also provided asylum to Belarussian dissidents in exile and,  provided them with a platform to speak their mind (or at least in Tsikhanouskaya’s case). This has perhaps irritated Lukashenka more than sanctions. In retaliation for Vilnius granting Tsikhanouskaya exile, Minsk has weaponized the refugee crisis. Belarus forced approximately 1,500 Muslim refugees to cross the Lithuanian border this summer in an attempt to imitate Erdogan’s usage of refugees as political leverage.

As dissidents like Tsikhanouskaya point out, the EU should do more to tackle the situation in Belarus. First, it should continue applying targeted sanctions against Human Rights abusers. Most importantly, it should double down on its asylum policy for Belarusian dissidents, ensuring that not only they are allowed into the EU but are also safe from Lukashenka’s KGB goons and have the means to organize themselves and speak out freely. This policy has a successful track record. During the Cold War, the West provided a safe space for Central European dissidents from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. This exiled intelligentsia would eventually prove crucial in handling the transition from Communism to democracy. Likewise, given the brutal repression at home, it seems likely that Belarusian dissidents in exile now will be the ones tasked with rebuilding their country from the ashes of Lukashenka’s regime, when it eventually falls. The best that the West, especially Europe, can do is give them the right conditions to prepare for this.


Image Credits: Jana Schnipelson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.