Aleksandr Lukashenka and his thuggish tactics are not a new problem for the West. He’s stolen elections, brutalized the opposition, and flouted international rules and norms for years. The West has alternatively shouted, sanctioned, hectored, negotiated, and reached out, ultimately to no avail. In spite of a democratic movement that has challenged Lukashenka, the strongman remains in power and still controls the security apparatus.
But Lukashenka recently stepped up his terror tactics, and they spill beyond Belarus’s borders. On Aug. 3, the body of Vital Shyshou, a Belarusian democratic activist in exile in Kyiv, was found hanged in a park in the Ukrainian capital. In recent days, Belarusian authorities tried to force Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya to return to Belarus from the Tokyo games after she criticized the country’s authorities. In May, Lukashenka’s regime forced down a Ryanair commercial flight headed for Vilnius in order to arrest Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Pratasevich. Hundreds of Belarusian citizens have been arrested and tortured for protesting Lukashenka’s falsification of last August’s presidential election, which he lost to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, now the leader of the Belarusian democratic opposition living in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Lukashenka’s continued violence against dissidents and opponents real and perceived demands a forceful response from the West to puncture his apparent sense of impunity. Washington and Brussels need to impose greater consequences also to serve as a cautionary message to Lukashenka’s protector, Russian President Vladimir Putin, some of whose methods (including assassination of regime opponents on foreign soil) Lukashenka appears to be copying. The United States and the U.K. need to match and go beyond the broad economic sanctions to which the EU has already agreed.
Long a dictator, Lukashenka had shown skill in keeping his distance from Putin and, as a result, had sometimes responded to U.S. and European pressure and conditional offers of improved ties by, for example, releasing political prisoners. Those days are behind us. Faced with mass and sustained social protest after he stole the August 2020 presidential election from Tsikhanouskaya, wife of imprisoned opposition activist Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Lukashenka has embraced new levels of repression.
Lukashenka has not managed to destroy the opposition, many of whose leaders have sought refuge in neighboring Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. The opposition is quickly growing in sophistication, shown by the well-executed visit to the United States last month by Tsikhanouskaya and her senior team, in which she met with President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, members of Congress, and a host of NGOs, academics, and Silicon Valley leaders. Their aim, consistently stated by Tsikhanouskaya, is to give the Belarusian people a democratic choice about who leads their country. Today, on the same day as Shyshou’s body was found in Kyiv, Tsikhanouskaya was warmly received in London by Prime Minister Boris Johnson at No. 10 Downing Street.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka is fighting for his position and Putin is fighting to prevent a democratic movement from succeeding in a country that he regards as a vassal state and therefore subject to his authority.
The West should take action commensurate with Lukashenka’s increased aggression. It has not been idle. Both the U.K. and the EU responded rapidly to Lukashenka’s air piracy in May by banning Belarusian commercial flights from landing in Europe and their own from landing in or overflying Belarusian airspace. In June, they and the United States added additional sanctions on regime individuals and entities, including senior regime officials and the Belarusian KGB.
The EU’s sanctions were broad, including on Belarus exports and financing for Belarus state-owned companies. Washington is reportedly preparing to follow with new sanctions (and perhaps a new executive order) around Aug. 9, the anniversary of the stolen Belarusian election.
But the time that it has taken to prepare a new set of U.S. sanctions has given Lukashenka room for his escalation. The West needs a bigger stick.
The United States and Europe have options. An illustrative list – some of which may hopefully be included in the upcoming U.S. package — could include:
- Imposing sanctions on Lukashenka’s personal networks. The United States has had Lukashenka himself under sanctions since he stole the 2006 election. Borrowing from its authority under the Global Magnitsky sanctions, the United States should go after Lukashenka’s family members. The United States has sanctioned his son, Viktor, but his wife and other two sons remain unsanctioned.
- Sanction Lukashenka’s circle of cronies. The Belarusian opposition has started to identify who’s who in Lukashenka’s inner circle. Going after Lukashenka’s cronies would demonstrate to them and to Belarusian society that Lukashenka cannot intimidate the United States and Europe or provide protection for his gang.
- Financial sanctions: fully sanction Belarus state-owned banks; ban all financing for Belarus state companies and block issuance of new Belarus state debt. The United States should match and exceed the June EU sanctions. But it should prohibit primary and secondary market dealings only in new debt, as going after existing stocks of debt would harm investors more than Lukashenka’s regime.
- Trade sanctions. The United States should catch up to the EU’s restrictions on exports of fertilizers and petroleum products, and both should seek to close the loopholes in the EU measures that allow some exports of these revenue-producing goods to continue.
- Restrict the involvement of international financial institutions (IFI) in Belarus. The United States and Europe should limit Belarus’s access to such funds in light of the clearly fraudulent election results.
- Expel Belarus intelligence officers from European and U.S. embassies. The United States and European countries did the same following the attempted assassination by Russian intelligence of a Russian on British territory. The Belarus regime will retaliate, and the United States should not seek to close the Belarus embassy in Washington, as embassies serve important functions in citizen services and emigration, and it remains useful to have an official presence on the ground. But given the threat of Belarus intelligence officers attempting assassinations in Europe, the U.K., or the United States, expelling individual officers would be prudent to say the least.
Our options are not limited to sticks. In the long term, support for the democratic movement could prove more important than pressure on the regime. The United States has started treating Tsikhanouskaya and her team as Belarusian national leaders in fact, if not yet in name, much as it did Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement in Poland after the imposition of martial law. The United States and Europe responded to martial law in Poland with consistent political support and assistance to Solidarity, a good precedent that should be followed today.
Further, congressional appropriators recently included $30 million for Belarus, which is a massive increase. Nor is the US acting alone. The EU has offered to provide 3 billion Euros for Belarus if the country “changes course.” Lithuania and Poland are already providing both safe haven for the Belarus democratic movement and others being persecuted (like the sprinter, Tsimanouskaya). Washington and Brussels should make clear that they will not tolerate Lukashenka’s aggression, that they will provide protection to political exiles from Belarus, and that such warnings apply to Russia and its network of provocateurs and intelligence officer and hitmen.
Pressure on a despotic regime and support for the democratic opposition may not bear immediate or even short-term results. But history shows it can have major long-term results, especially if the free world means it. In Belarus, we should finally mean it.