Belarus sanctions – The EU’s symbolic response

Rikard Jozwiak,
Europe Editor,
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty,
Prague, The Czech Republic

Let’s start by stating the obvious: the European Union’s sanctions against Belarus are symbolic. They did not substantially change the behaviour of the regime in Minsk after the violent crackdown that followed the contested Presidential elections back in December 2010 and they are not very likely to alter the political calculations of the very same regime when the bloc imposed another set of sanctions in the wake of the violence against the population witnessed in the country following the rigged vote on August 9.

Yet, sanctions remain the sole foreign policy whip the EU possesses – and that is why it is being so touted both by media and politicians alike. While Brussels ideally would prefer to offer carrots, being a bloc of countries that largely strives to be a soft superpower, it would look rather foolish to offer the Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his associates any incentives now. That is why closer economic ties and political cooperation, as well as promises of visa liberalization in the future all are off the table. And that is also why promises of aiding the country financially comes with the caveat that no Euros should end up lining the pockets of those that run the country – a rather tricky demand considering that one is dealing with a dictatorship.

Since Brussels wants to aid and not hurt the struggling Belarusian population, sweeping sectoral sanctions of the sort imposed on Russia in the summer of 2014 after its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine was ruled out back in 2010/2011 and will be so again this time around. The fact that EU-Belarus trade is miniscule compared to the economic transactions flowing between the bloc and Moscow makes such measures look rather blunt.

What is left is then asset freezes and visa bans to be slapped on various Belarusian officials. When the EU introduced such measures in early 2011, they covered well-over 100 people, including Lukashenka himself. The behaviour of the regime didn’t change considerably to begin with. Many EU officials, however, tend to point out that all political prisoners eventually were released, leading to most of the sanctions to be lifted by the EU in 2016. And while the sanctions might have been a nuisance to the regime during those five years, analysts  at the time pointed to pressure from Russia resulting in Minsk turning to the EU as the real reason why Lukashenka eventually showed a softer touch.

Just consider the weakness of the sanctions to start with. Most people listed don’t have bank accounts in the EU and if they do, it is very likely that they managed to empty them as soon as they knew that Brussels were considering restrictive measures and well before those measures eventually were put in place. Many of the people are also unlikely to travel to the EU frequently and even if they do, there are ways to circumvent a travel ban. It is individual EU member states that are supposed to police the list, and as with most things in the Union, it is only as strong as its weakest link. That anyone on the list can ask for an exemption if they can prove that their travel is essential is another loophole that further weakens the whole set-up.

With the EU now busy constructing a new sanctions regime against Belarus, it is hard not to feel that the EU is stepping into the same river twice – only less forcefully this time. Some 30 officials will be listed but Lukashenka is spared, even though it is believed that the measures can be scaled up to include even the President depending on how Minsk responds to the initial action taken. My guess is that it will ignore them regardless of the scale – just like in 2010/2011. The threats of sanctions, that have been there since early August, have so far not tempered the ongoing crackdown in any way, quite the opposite in fact. Belarus clearly knows that they are symbolic.

And so does the EU, but it must be seen as responding with something else than just expressions of worries and regrets. A further complication however is that sanction decisions require unanimity. There is broad agreement among the 27 member states but like so much else in Brussels, this measure has been tangled up in other policy issues. Cyprus, backed by Greece, will not sign off on the Belarus measures until there are more EU sanctions on Turkey for its drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

This might just postpone the decision by a couple of weeks at best but ultimately is does show that even when the EU manages to agree on a common foreign policy measure, it is a weak one susceptible to the whims of individual member. So, while the Belarus sanctions is the strongest message Brussels can send to its errant neighbour, the weakness of the measures is symbolic of the EU’s limits as a geopolitical actor.

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