The idea of a new “color revolution” has excited many as months of protest have torn through Belarus, “the last dictatorship in Europe.” Seemingly forgotten since 1991, the Belarusian people have captured international attention, taking to the streets to protest corruption of the government and the illegitimate reelection of Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994. The ongoing protests and subsequent security crackdown by state security forces has many looking to the European Union for a response. Despite being unable to agree to unanimous language condemning Belarusian authorities’ violent repression of protestors, member states have quickly settled on a material response: sanctions on Lukashenko and other Minsk officials. This would be a seriously misguided policy. The European Union should not sanction Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials because this: 1) would betray the wishes of fellow Eastern European countries like Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, which prioritize mediation between Lukashenko and the opposition candidate, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, and 2) would push Belarus back toward Russia at a potentially critical moment of bringing the country into the Western fold.
Citizens across Eastern Europe have filled their cities’ streets in solidarity with the protestors. Kyiv, Warsaw, Riga, Krakow, St. Petersburg, and Moscow are witness to protests calling attention to the plight of Belarusians. There is little doubt why Eastern Europeans—both governments and citizens—have turned out in droves to show their support for Belarusians: barely three decades ago, they too were repressed by authoritarian governments. Unlike those in Western Europe, they remember the suffering of dictatorship behind the iron curtain. This divided history of Europe makes the European Union’s condemnation of Poland’s call for a summit on Belarus all the more troubling.
Poland has been at the forefront of the European response to the protests. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was one of the first European leaders to respond to the police crackdown in Minsk, calling for an EU summit, a prospect quickly shot down by leadership in Brussels. EU officials were allegedly “irritated” by Poland’s motivation to spearhead action within the EU’s prerogatives, something it has in recent years condemned Poland’s government for not doing. Instead of congratulating good behavior for which it had been asking for so long, it condemned it. Despite this condemnation, EU leadership has agreed to meet virtually on August 19 to send a message of solidarity to the Belarusian people.
What is more, EU leaders are pursuing the wholly misguided policy of sanctioning Lukashenko and his accomplices at a time when bringing Minsk into the Western community is riper than ever. Brussels had pushed Belarus to closer economic cooperation with Russia—widely understood as Minsk’s patron—with sanctions until their repeal in 2016. Recently, the warming of economic relations has allowed Belarus to push back against Moscow. In early 2020, Minsk refused to renew the oil and gas contracts that had been key to the Russian-Belarusian relationship, a move unlikely if EU sanctions were still in place. This development is incredibly significant as just two years ago, Minsk and Moscow were in talks to unify their countries. Given present circumstances, this is time for Brussels to lure Belarus in, not push it away. Sanctions will undo the last four years of increased West-Belarus ties and push Minsk back toward Putin, who very well could escalate the situation to avoid setting a precedent for his own people of a dictator falling to protests. There is no guarantee Russia will not roll tanks into Minsk to suppress the protests and save the Belarusian president. Lukashenko could refuse to give up power, despite undeniable public support for regime change. A heavy-handed Western response will bring both of these possibilities closer to reality.
Sanctions do little to stop oppressive regimes—if anything, they ostracize and further embolden those they are meant to coerce. For Putin’s Russia, that means moving towards China; for Lukashenko’s Belarus, that means going back to Russia, evident already in the president’s August 15 request for assistance from Putin. Belarus, already one of the poorest countries in Europe, would hurt even from “targeted” sanctions. This approach leaves few options for Lukashenko and does little to aid the Belarusian people.
Brussels does not understand the complexities of social change in the post-Soviet space. Just six years ago, the EU had the opportunity to assist in a peaceful and meaningful democratic transition in Ukraine. The EU’s lackluster response to the Euromaidan Revolution, Russian annexation of Crimea, and Russian support for the war in eastern Ukraine has preserved a state of armed conflict within the country. An unmeasured, blunt response from the EU—like sanctioning Belarusian officials—could have just as severe consequences in Belarus. Now is not the time for Brussels to monopolize European foreign policy; the EU would do well to follow the leadership of its Eastern European members that transitioned to democracies in the 1990s and have more experience in fighting against Russian influence than the West. Poland’s Solidarity movement was able to reach a power sharing agreement with the Soviet-backed communists, which led to the peaceful fall of communism in the country. The Baltic states democratized successfully—on their own terms and with little interference from the West. The EU’s August 19 summit on Belarus should be telling: Will the EU repeat its mistakes of 2014 and push Belarus toward Russia with sanctions, or will it let member states take the lead without Brussels’ leadership, uninformed by experience of Soviet communism?
Madison Sargeant is a Midshipman in the U.S. Navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps at Boston University currently studying International Relations with a focus on national security and Eastern Europe, and Statistical Methods. She can be found on Twitter at @SargeantMadison.
Joseph Forcherio is a Master of Arts in International Affairs candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. His interests include the post-Soviet space, the Balkans, great power politics, and U.S. foreign policy.