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New #BerlinPerspectives! One Year after the Presidential Election in Belarus: — Germany’s role and policy recommendations for the political crisis in Belarus


by Katrin Böttger and Nicolas Butylin

On 9 August 2020, a political crisis broke out in Belarus, triggered by the fraud­ulent presi­dential election and violence against subse­quent peaceful demon­stra­tions. The escalating confrontation between President Alyak­sandr Lukashenka and the Coordi­nation Council led by the opposition’s election candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has been the focus of attention in many European capitals. Since the election Tsikhanouskaya has met more EU state heads of state and government than Lukashenka has in his 27 years in office. While on the surface the situation in Belarus has calmed down in contrast to the protest marches seen last summer and autumn, the regime’s retal­i­ation against political opponents has steadily increased. The events of the last months illus­trate how far the regime in Belarus has distanced itself from the common European framework of values. Diplo­matic and civil society channels are increas­ingly cut off: Minsk’s reaction to the EU sanctions since the election have culmi­nated so far with the expulsion of the EU’s ambas­sador to Belarus, Dirk Schuebel. The closure of member-state embassies cannot be ruled out, as indicated in the forced reduc­tions in the staff of the Latvian and Lithuanian embassies. The regime shutting down the Goethe-Institute and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Belarus will also reduce the capacity for exter­nally supported cultural activ­ities in the country.

The improvement in EU-Belarusian relations between 2015 and 2020, including the lifting of sanctions six years ago and cooper­ation within the Eastern Partnership, did not lead to democ­ra­ti­zation in Belarus. Today the EU needs a different strategy combining sanctions against the illegit­imate regime and enhanced cooper­ation with civil society actors inside and outside Belarus. And, even though the EU has achieved little to change the situation in Belarus in the past twelve months, it still has scope for further action to put more political pressure on Lukashenka to schedule a new presi­dential election, stop the violence against peaceful protesters and release political prisoners.

Since the presi­dential election last August, the EU has taken multi­faceted measures against Belarus. In the weeks following the poll, EU heads of state and government expressed concern about the political situation and called for the end of state-organized violence against peaceful demon­strators and the release of political prisoners. The EU and its member states did not recognize the official results of the election, which the Organi­zation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deemed neither free nor fair. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania imposed sanctions against Belarus in August, and in October 2020 a first package of EU sanctions followed, which imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 40 people. In November 2020, the European Council adopted a second package of sanctions, targeting Lukashenka, his son and national security advisor, Viktar Lukashenka, and 15 other members of Belarusian author­ities. The worsening repression of the democracy movement, including the targeting of journalists and civil society, resulted in a third package of EU sanctions, which was ratified in December 2020. Included for the first time were actors in the Belarusian economy who were not specif­i­cally linked to the election but who either benefit from or actively support the regime. In May 2021, the European Commission presented a €3 billion support package for a democ­ratic Belarus. Its key elements are financial support for economic recovery, increased connec­tivity between the EU and Belarus, and support for the Belarusian IT industry and environ­mental projects. However, the package is condi­tioned on democ­ratic progress and should be under­stood as an incentive for reform.

The EU’s attention to Belarus was heightened in June 2021 when the author­ities forced the landing in Minsk of a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius in order to arrest opposition blogger Raman Prata­sevič and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Following this unprece­dented incident, the European Council reacted immedi­ately and decided upon a fourth, so far the largest, sanctions package, primarily targeting the financial sector of the economy (potash, tobacco and oil products).

The political crisis in Belarus is of high relevance for the rest of Europe and for Germany. The EU has an almost 1,300 km border with the country, which has received more attention in recent weeks due to a record number of refugees from the Middle East and the Caucasus crossing from Belarus into member states. In January 2020 the EU and Belarus signed a visa facil­i­tation and readmission agreement that provided for the return of persons present irreg­u­larly in either, making the route via Belarus to the EU less attractive for refugees. Following the fourth EU sanctions package, Minsk has moved to suspend the readmission agreement with the aim to put pressure on neigh­bouring EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Resolving the confrontation with the government in Minsk continues to be a high priority and the EU and its member states as the situation in Belarus is a test for the EU’s ability to act in foreign policy and geopo­lit­i­cally. Furthermore, the EU is facing a regime that is disavowing democracy, the rule of law and universal values and freedoms – and also at stake is the potential imitation of Lukashenka’s actions elsewhere in Europe’s neighbourhood.

Germany’s role

Germany’s approach for dealing with the political crisis in Belarus is in line with EU measures. For example, there has been no questioning of or suggestion of vetoing the EU sanctions imposed so far in Berlin. However, the German government is more cautious than its Eastern European and Baltic counter­parts when it comes to taking more action to solve the crisis. Germany’s role in formu­lating an EU strategy on Belarus is also linked to its relationship with Russia, which is illus­trated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s statement that she wanted to speak to President Vladimir Putin about the Ryanair incident before taking direct measures against Belarus. As in the conflict in Ukraine, Germany is trying to mediate among the EU member states, supporting sanctions while keeping stronger measures for possible future circumstances.

German-Belarusian relations have deteri­o­rated in the last twelve months after their upturn since 2015. The Strategic Advisory Group, which was initiated in 2019 during the visit of Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei to Germany, was suspended right after the 2020 presi­dential election. To date, two meetings have taken place with repre­sen­ta­tives from the respective government, business and scien­tific circles, enabling exchanges at the highest diplo­matic level. The Belarusian-German History Commission, which was consti­tuted in February 2020, also has an unclear future after the contracts of members of the Historical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in Minsk were not extended by the Belarusian government due to their atten­dance at demonstrations.

The several visits of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to Berlin in the last twelve months have highlighted the impor­tance of Germany for solving the Belarus crisis. She has had meetings with Chancellor Merkel and President Frank-Walter Stein­meier as well as politi­cians from the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats to discuss ways for Germany to support Belarus’s democracy movement and civil society. The country’s continuing presence on Germany’s agenda is also thanks to the more active Belarusian diaspora, which in the aftermath of the presi­dential election organized solidarity demon­stra­tions in several German cities.

Germany’s government was most clear when it dealt with the forced landing in Minsk of the Ryanair aircraft, which had four German citizens on board. It condemned this action by the Belarusian author­ities as well as the mistreatment of Prata­sevič, which government spokesperson Steffen Seibert described as ‘a disgrace’. Belarus’s ambas­sador, Denis Sidorenko, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for the second time since the election.

Policy Recom­men­da­tions

While the ongoing actions of Belarus’s author­ities against its citizens will probably result in a fifth package of EU sanctions, so far the EU and Germany have achieved little to change the situation in the country. Yet it is in the EU’s interest to keep Belarus high on the political agenda and to increase the pressure on Lukashenka to release political prisoners and call a new free and fair election, even while keeping in mind the lifeline he has to Russia.
The following policy recom­men­da­tions are based on two pillars. The first consists of the expansion of sanctions, persistent demands, and positive incen­tives towards the government in Minsk at the political level. The second consists of measures in relation to civil society actors in Belarus.

(1.) Continue to demand the release of political prisoners: The EU should continue to demand the release of political prisoners (of which there were 610 on 9 August) as well as to offer benefits to the Belarusian author­ities if they show ‘goodwill’ in this respect, such as lifting the sanctions on the national airline Belavia.

(2.) Continue to demand a free and fair presi­dential election: The EU and other inter­na­tional insti­tu­tions should maintain their demand of holding a free and fair presi­dential election under inter­na­tional obser­vation by the OSCE, of which Belarus is a member.

(3.) Create a new EU special repre­sen­tative for Belarus: The EU would benefit from the creation of a special repre­sen­tative for Belarus. This would once again highlight the relevance of the situation to European and Belarusian audiences, and it would allow the EU to act more inten­sively and more resiliently in relation to the country. The special repre­sen­tative could better coordinate political and civil society activ­ities using Track II practices.

(4.) Strengthen visa facil­i­tation for Belaru­sians: A major step would be to introduce temporary visa facil­i­tation for Belaru­sians in the Schengen area to protect them from violence and lawlessness in their country. However, there is no consensus for an EU approach. While the likes of Lithuania and Poland have eased visa regula­tions, Germany and France in particular should do the same to ensure that Belarusian citizens are not subject to Lukashenka’s policy of isolation.

(5.) Open criminal inves­ti­ga­tions against Lukashenka and security officers: The example of criminal proce­dures in Germany and Lithuania should be followed at the EU level with inves­ti­ga­tions against Lukashenka and the perpe­trators of state-ordered torture of peaceful demon­strators. This would follow the principle of universal juris­diction according to which crimes against humanity can also be prose­cuted from abroad.

(6.) Cut off Belarus from inter­na­tional banking: A major blow to the Lukashenka regime would be the decou­pling of Belarus from the SWIFT inter­na­tional payments system for financial insti­tu­tions, which would have the effect of isolating Belarusian banks from inter­na­tional financial flows. Export-oriented state-owned enter­prises would be hit hard, as has been the case in Iran as a result of similar measures. EU action in this regard would have a greater impact in coordi­nation with the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and countries from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. However, this would also impact the people in Belarus as payments and transfers in and out of the country would no longer be possible and would have to be made via third parties or couriers.

(7.) Establish an EU-Belarus civil society forum: While the prospect of a Belarus summit, as called for by Tsikhanouskaya, between repre­sen­ta­tives of the government in Minsk, members of the Coordi­nation Council and repre­sen­ta­tives of the EU and Russia seems very unreal­istic, a civil society forum along the lines of the German-Russian Petersburg Dialogue could be a first step towards an all-Belarusian exchange of views.

(8.) Support the Belarusian diaspora: In addition to the financial contri­bu­tions to civil society organi­za­tions and independent media included in the support package of the European Commission, financial support should also be channelled to the Belarusian community in the EU. The diaspora plays a crucial role in the inter­na­tional dissem­i­nation of infor­mation about devel­op­ments inside Belarus. German and other European security and intel­li­gence agencies need to monitor even more closely the threat to exiles from the Belarusian security author­ities. This was under­lined by several recent cases not only including the arrest of Prata­sevič, but also the fact that the Belarusian Olympian Kristina Tsminaouskaya refused to return to Belarus for fear of oppression, and the death of Vitaly Shyshou in Kyiv under myste­rious circum­stances that are currently being inves­ti­gated. Measures must be considered to counteract this threat in EU countries and offer protection to those targeted.

(9.) Establish Eastern European University: As several experts have called for in a letter to the European Commission, the EU should consider estab­lishing an Eastern European University on the territory of the EU. A university with an integrative approach and free education would be signif­icant to help the young gener­ation in Belarus (and other autocratic countries in Eastern Europe). Furthermore, the EU should extend Erasmus+ programs and schol­ar­ships for Belaru­sians to study abroad. This would foster cultural contacts between the EU and Belarus for many decades to come.

To sum up, one year since the start of the political crisis in Belarus, the EU has scope for more actions to increase political pressure on Lukashenka to schedule a new election, stop the violence against peaceful protesters and release political prisoners. With the temporary closure of cultural and admin­is­trative insti­tu­tions in Belarus, the EU should continue to work with Belarusian civil society under the Eastern Partnership framework. In particular, the EU and Germany should work together in cooper­ating with NGOs, journalists and small-and medium-sized enter­prises in Belarus to maintain people-to-people contacts. If the human­i­tarian situation in Belarus deteri­o­rates further, EU assis­tance will have to focus mainly on the diaspora, while deeper cooper­ation with civil society actors in the country seems unreal­istic under current circum­stances since democ­ratic actors in Belarus are at risk when cooper­ating with the EU. Moreover, the EU should not fall for any slight democ­ra­ti­zation processes within the Lukashenka apparatus as a reason for easing its pressure.

This #Berlin­Per­spec­tives reflects the author’s views only. 

About the Authors: 
Dr. Katrin Böttger is one of the two directors of Institut für Europäische Politik.
Nicolas Butylin is a Student Assistant at Institut für Europäische Politik.

#Berlin­Per­spec­tives is published by the Institut für Europäische Politik and provides precise analyses and policy recom­men­da­tions for Germany’s European policy on current issues and debates.


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