The Evolving EU Position on Belarus
15 August, 2020
In light of the spate of protests following a rigged election in Belarus, its citizens have taken to the streets enmasse to protest its outcome. The numbers are estimated to be in the tens of thousands, and they only seem to be getting stronger. Amidst all of the chaos, the EU still does not have a clear position, nor does the US who is still on the sidelines. Who does, however, is Russia, and they are already baiting President Lukashenko with protection and legitimacy in exchange for deeper integration within the Union State.
Because of this, the EU should take a consistent and clear position on what is assuredly a rigged election and Lukashenko’s escalation against protesting Belarusian citizens. It should also coordinate with the US on a joint position on both the election and potential Russian meddling. However, given the penchant of the Trump administration to eschew multilateralism it’s unclear if their positions on either will be coordinated.
Not only must the EU take a strong stance on a rigged election and the protest crackdown, but it must also take a clear stance on the potential of Russian interference to take advantage of the emerging chaos. While the EU has already moved to impose more targeted sanctions on Lukashenko and his cronies, this also means making it clear to the Kremlin that heavier sanctions will follow if coercive attempts are made at undermining Belarusian sovereignty.
The Current Situation
Currently protests have gripped Minsk and other cities in Belarus over what was clearly a rigged election by Lukashenko. They are going into multiple days of protests that only seem to be getting bigger by the day. Unfortunately, however, so too does the violence against protestors perpetrated by the Belarusian state. As of August 13th 2020, there have been reports of mass beatings and torture as Aleksandr Lukashenko desperately tries to cling to power. A large number of women dressed in white and barefoot have become a status symbol of the protests chanting “Leave!” Still, however, the situation continues to unfold and it’s not clear to what extent the protests will grow, but there’s no ending in sight.
Protest candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya ran against incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko with many coming out in support of her. However, on August 9th, Lukashenko won (allegedly due to rigging) the election with “84-percent” of the vote; thus, sparking the current protests. Originally, Svetlana’s husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky, a popular Belarusian YouTube blogger, opted to run against Lukashenko, but was detained on phony charges after announcing his Presidency. Lukashenko also arrested a number of other protest candidates, and this is when Svetlana decided to run in her husband’s stead. To date, Svetlana is currently in Lithuania and under the protection of Lithuanian authorities after fleeing out of fear of her and her children’s lives.
EU Foreign Ministers met in an emergency meeting on August 14th to discuss the possibility of imposing ‘targeted sanctions’ on Lukashenko and his leadership in light of the election and protest crackdown. With the full backing of Germany, the EU has prepared a list of government officials to sanction, which is still in the works. Still yet, EU is faced with a situation where it must uphold it’s “European values,” as well as what was a budding relationship with Belarus. This is important because Russia has aggressively pursued a Union-State that could further cement Russia’s influence in the region and embolden it to continue more malign activities. This is why it is essential that the EU does not treat this as a singular issue but rather as a multifaceted one that could have multiple implications. Likewise, they should engage Moscow, but set clear red lines from the get-go.
The US for its part has been eerily silent just until yesterday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just recently called for a joint effort to coordinate US-EU positions on Belarus while on an official state visit to EU member Slovenia. This is a promising response; however, the problem is that while entities like the State Department or the Department of Defense toe the line wanting to cooperate with their transatlantic partners, President Trump, for his part, will often run contrary to such efforts and will even actively undermine it in unplanned outbursts. For this reason, it remains to be seen to what extent positions will be coordinated. However, make no mistake that it is crucial that both the US and EU form a singular front to deal with the unfolding crisis.
Russia, while making official statements congratulating Lukashenko and condemning the crackdown, has also been eerily silent as to where they exactly stand. Most likely because they are waiting to see how things unfold before they decide who better suits their long-term interests within the country. Russia is trying to take the façade of a hands-off approach in order to detract any potential criticism from the US or EU. Make no mistake though that the Kremlin is lurking about to seek ways of taking advantage of the situation. It is unclear though to what extent they are willingly to outwardly pursue their interests in light of a sinking economy, continually being plagued by Covid-19, and its own protests in the Far East. Because of this they will try to avoid having even stronger sanctions slapped on them by the US and EU should they become belligerent.
Some would argue that this is the exact reason Russia would be more apt to do an August land grab to deflect tensions internally and to project power to the outside world especially the West. However, while not out of the realm of possibilities, Putin and his cronies know Belarus will not be leaving Russia’s orbit any time soon. Hence the reason why such a move would be rash and counterproductive given that this would be followed by more crippling sanctions. Even so they will certainly try to push their designs for a Union-State and will gladly use subversive means to meet their end goal. Ultimately the Kremlin is likely betting on having to do little with the inability of the West to take a united front.
In the end, Belarus will not be leaving Russia’s orbit regardless if Lukashenko stays in power or if Svetlana Tikhanovskaya or someone else takes his place. What can be possible though is Belarus maintaining its sovereignty from Russia, and at least making some democratic reforms with a new administration. This is also exactly why a coordinated response from the US and EU will make Moscow think harder about any actions it might take should they face the ire of Western capitals. They can make clear that they are on the side of the Belarusian people, and desire to promote stronger ties with the West especially with trade. The saddest part though is that they seem to be incapable of even that, and of course if it is indeed able, Moscow will take full advantage of it any way it can.