Belarus is becoming Europe’s ‘North Korea.’ What can EU do about it?

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Under the glare of both spotlights and a Belarusian state television presenter, detained journalist Raman Pratasevich breaks down in tears. He says he wants to quit politics and have a normal life.

In statements family and friends later described as coerced, he confesses to the crime of organizing unauthorized mass protests. He calls Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who put him in this situation, a man who has been unfairly criticized. “Rallies in support of me will come to naught,” he tells the presenter.

He may be right. Mr. Pratasevich is not the first dissident to face harsh treatment by Belarusian authorities, but he is the first valued enough to warrant the hijacking of a Ryanair jetliner traveling between two European NATO member nations, with more than a hundred other passengers on board. And he has become a powerful reminder of the brutal repressions unleashed on the Belarusian people by their leader, after unfair elections sparked popular protests last August.

Mr. Lukashenko’s forcing down of a passenger plane on May 23 marks a turning point for the West. In recent months, Belarus has been steadily morphing into what many describe as the “North Korea of Europe.” Thousands have been detained in connection with protest activities and nearly 500 political prisoners are behind bars. Poland and Lithuania shelter many who fled. Those left in Belarus live in a climate of fear. Analysts question whether fresh sanctions will actually help the situation, but they find hope in the resilience of Belarusians themselves.

“There’s probably not a single family left whose relatives or families have not been touched by the regime in terms of persecutions, imprisonment, repression,” says Veronica Laputska, co-founder of the Warsaw-based Eurasian States in Transition Research Center. “The country is locked and it’s practically impossible to leave.”

Lukashenko expands his reach

The country wedged between Russia and Europe is currently under de facto martial law, analysts say.

Television and radio is completely state-run, while Mr. Lukashenko recently shut down the largest independent website in the country. The circle of people willing to speak up is shrinking, as protests that once mobilized over a million people have fizzled into small, ethereal acts of defiance. Government opponents and media professionals risk being labeled terrorists, while social media habits – monitored by random police checks – can land Belarusians in detention where beatings and torture are common.

Analysts say that the Ryanair incident was a show of government strength for a domestic audience, as it required coordination between various Belarusian security and military units, and the Russians may have been involved. The message to the West appeared to be: No one can stop me. Whether Mr. Lukashenko’s decision to try to silence critics outside Belarus was a miscalculation, or a deliberate move taken with confidence that Russia would provide cover from consequences, is unclear, analysts say.

What is clear is that “Lukashenko has expanded the limits of his terror, which was mainly used internally,” says Siarhei Kharytonau, a New York-based media expert at iSANS, a think tank monitoring Belarus and Eastern Europe. “It was an act of revenge, very personal revenge. … Nobody expected it would cause so many implications.”

Mr. Pratasevich, the arrested journalist, is a co-founder of Nexta, a Telegram-hosted media channel that covers and coordinates protests from the relative safety of Poland. His “real” crime, says Mr. Kharytonau, was in challenging state propaganda and unveiling the extent of public opposition to Mr. Lukashenko. His actions “humiliated” Mr. Lukashenko in front of subordinates who are repeatedly told by state media that the regime is in control, that “people are happy, that the protests that took place in August were not popular, and that they were part of a blitzkrieg from Poland and Lithuania who wanted to occupy Belarus,” says Mr. Kharytonau.

In power since 1994 and known as Europe’s “last dictator,” Mr. Lukashenko has been emboldened by years of Western inaction, says Mr. Kharytonau, and he’s ignored the global outcry that followed Mr. Pratasevich’s arrest. In recent weeks, Mr. Lukashenko signed even harsher laws to deter “illegal” demonstrations, their media coverage, and “extremist activities,” taking actions similar to those used by Russia in cracking down on pro-democracy and anti-corruption activists such as Alexei Navalny.

“Real sanctions will cost Europe money”

After the Ryanair jet landing, European Union leaders quickly banned Belarusian carriers from flying in EU airspace and threatened to pass further sanctions.

Past EU sanctions have failed to pack a punch, analysts say. That’s because the creation of these lists of people and companies is undermined by politicking and economic calculations. Travel bans and asset freezes have long been instituted for top-ranking Belarusian officials (though Mr. Lukashenko himself was only added at the end of 2020). But more punishing packages typically failed to secure a broad consensus among EU member states.

“Europe introduces symbolic sanctions,” says Stanislav Shushkevich, the former Belarusian head of state in the 1990s. “They sound good, they support democracy, but to [really] do something one shouldn’t spare money. Real sanctions will cost Europe money.”

Germany and other European countries have never refrained from buying Belarusian oil, potash, and related products that directly fund the regime. And preventing European companies from selling in Belarus would potentially allow Turkish and Russian companies to step into the vacuum. So there’s a clear conflict between policy and profits.

“There is the EU and then there are interests of concrete companies that invested into Belarus and expect profits,” says Anton Semyonov, a Belarusian citizen who works at an insurance company in Minsk. “Our head of state does understand that; he has fantastic intuition.”

Further, Mr. Lukashenko has established good commercial relationships with many European businesspeople. They provide cover and facilitate access to the European market, according to Yaroslav Romanchuk, an economist and president of the libertarian think tank Scientific Research Mises Center in Minsk. “During the last round of sanctions, a few businesspeople from Lukashenko’s close circle were removed from the sanctions list by their European partners.”

There is also a limit to the EU’s clout. The bloc took only about a third of Belarusian exports even during the most flush years.

The United States has acted strongly against nine Belarusian state-owned enterprises, which has raised hopes that Europe may follow suit. “We’re working on the EU to follow American lead and to be more forceful and to be more practical, … to have measures that would be impactful on the behavior [of Mr. Lukashenko],” says Mr. Romanchuk.

“Restrictions alone have never been an ultimate magic wand,” says independent analyst Pavel Hanchuk. “A combination of external pressure and internal national mobilization is the key. The future of Belarus can be determined only by its citizens.”

Belarus’ silent partner

Complicating the EU’s ability to act is Russia, a close ally of Belarus. Some EU member states believe consolidating action against Mr. Lukashenko would hurt the bloc’s already sensitive relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia has been willing to back up Mr. Lukashenko, evidenced by recent tit-for-tat moves complicating European airlines’ access to Russian airspace, which is now needed to avoid flying over Belarus. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Mr. Lukashenko on his boat right after the Ryanair incident, and Moscow appears to have no problems with the detention of Sofia Sapega, Mr. Pratasevich’s girlfriend and a Russian citizen, who was also taken from the flight.

“If not for Kremlin’s support, [the] Lukashenko issue would have already been solved,” says Yevgeny Ogurtsov, a journalist and political writer in Minsk.

After the incident, Russia agreed to unlock $500 million for Belarus, marking the second installment of a $1.5 billion loan that Moscow promised Minsk as part of the effort to help stabilize its neighbor after the disputed 2020 elections. Russia is the top trading partner for Belarus – the EU is No. 2 – and plays a key role in its economy.

“Russia’s dominating role in the Belarusian economy is something unquestioned,” says Maksimas Milta, head of the Communication and Development Unit at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university in exile in Vilnius. “Effectively speaking, you can hardly find any sector of the Belarusian economy right now which would not be dominated by Russia except for the IT sector.”

The EU has offered twice as much as Russia – a $3.6 billion package in grants and loans – on condition that Belarus joins the ranks of Western democracies. But former Belarusian head of state Mr. Shushkevich rejects the idea that Belarus should have to choose sides politically or economically.

“Why should it be one or another – Europe or Russia?” asks Mr. Shushkevich, who led Belarus after its independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. “Belarus should neither be in Europe nor in Russia, but an independent neutral state. Armed neutrality and friendly with everyone.”

Others believe soft power – via young Belarusians seeing the way of life in Europe, for example – will yield better results than any combination of sticks or carrots to persuade authorities. “Belarus will not join Europe. We have to build Europe inside Belarus ourselves … if people could get rid of the fear,” says Mr. Ogurtsov, the political writer in Minsk.

Not looking for democracy?

For now, the loudest acts of protest are coming from outside the country. In Belarus, the average citizen cares more about food in the fridge than the political dramas unfolding on state television, says Mr. Semyonov, the insurance worker. “Authorities will stick to power by all possible means,” he says. “There is a complicated period for Belarus ahead.”

Mr. Romanchuk notes a recent opinion poll found that fewer than 42% of Belarusians believe democracy is the best way to run the country, with support for a free market even lower. “People don’t like Lukashenko because he’s cruel … but they believe that somebody else with the same kind of power would be OK,” he says.

The huge street rallies of the fall are now too dangerous to repeat. Even wearing red-and-white socks, the colors of the banned Belarusian flag, is sufficient grounds for a fine. Still, Belarusians are finding small ways to voice their discontent. Printed leaflets are distributed on the sly and random groups film themselves marching in unison to signal discontent before quickly dispersing to avoid arrest.

“The most important role in resolving this crisis stays with the people, with Belarusians,” says Valery Kavaleuski, the foreign affairs representative of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. “It’s not easy to find hope in the atmosphere of despair and fear, but people are stubborn. People are resilient. People find ways to [seek change] safely.”

Some protest acts are scheduled at 23:34 (11:34 p.m.) in a nod to the digits of an administrative code that penalizes mass protest. On March 25, Belarusians unleashed a fireworks display at that time to celebrate Independence Day, according to Mr. Kavaleuski. People are starting to boycott state-produced goods such as tobacco and alcohol, which are heavily taxed and feed regime coffers.

Mr. Kavaleuski reminisces about the fall demonstrations that prompted Mr. Lukashenko’s recent crackdowns. They were joyful, peaceful, and enthusiastic. People are still holding on to those emotions, just waiting to be sprung.

“I would dare to say that if the police are withdrawn from the street, if they go back to their barracks, there will be huge numbers of people immediately,” says Mr. Kavaleuski. “Just give us our cities for 24 hours. You will see how resolute people feel about this situation.”

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