The EU strives for strategic sovereignty and the capability to master global politics. The crisis in Belarus presents an opportunity for Brussels to contribute to stability in its eastern neighborhood. In order to support a democratic transfer of power in Minsk, however, the EU must enhance its engagement across five areas.
Since last summer Belarus, the EU's direct neighbor in the East, has seen the gravest political crisis since its independence three decades ago. Having been in power for nearly as long, Belarus’ autocratic ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka faces a nationwide democratic movement that demands his immediate resignation, free and fair elections and fundamental reforms. Clinging to power, Lukashenka categorically rejects these demands, using his security apparatus to brutally suppress critics, and relying on Russia for political, technical and financial support. Nonetheless, countless Belarusians continue to protest against Lukashenka's rule every day, the democratic opposition has formed politically, citizens constantly invent new and creative forms of social resistance, and society provides help to thousands of victims of state repressions. A stalemate has emerged, with the Lukashenka regime and a large part of society irreconcilably opposed, but with neither side able to gain a decisive advantage.
This development came as a surprise to many in Belarus and even more so to foreign observers. For years, Lukashenka's power seemed unshakable. If, within a few months, his rule started to wobble, this is the result of longer-term changes in the relationship between society and the state. Society in Belarus has modernized substantially over the past ten years. A clear Belarusian identity has emerged. Islands of free enterprise have emerged, especially in the IT sector. Mobility, networking and digitization have injected global ideas and discourses into the country, be it gender issues, environmental protection or technology. Civil society and citizen initiatives have mushroomed and the independent cultural scene has experienced a boom.
By contrast, the Belarusian state - and in particular Lukashenka's politics - was increasingly anachronistic, paternalistically seeking to determine the lives of citizens in all respects. After years of stagnation, the state economy has found harder and harder to provide the population with even modest prosperity. The political leadership has only been able to compensate for dwindling support among many Belarusians by suppressing public criticism. Thus, Belarus has increasingly degenerated into a premodern police state facing off against an emancipated and open society.
This conflict has now erupted. Fueled by a deepening economic crisis, Russian threats to Belarusian independence, and obvious state failure in the corona pandemic, the presidential election of August 2020 became a referendum on the future of the Lukashenka regime. Its clear outcome in favor of democratic change in Belarus may be rejected by the current ruler in Minsk who, with the help of the security apparatus, terror against citizens and support from the Kremlin, remains in place for the time being. Sooner or later, however, this tension between society and the state will have to be resolved if stability, legitimacy and sovereignty are to be returned to Belarus.
In doing so, Europe and Germany have an important role to play. For the EU, the Belarusian crisis is an opportunity to make good on its much-discussed claim of being better able to act in its neighborhood and of strategic sovereignty on the global stage. At the same time, Germany has a chance to live up to its central role and responsibility in Eastern Europe. However, EU and German responses to the dramatic situation in Belarus have, so far, been sobering. Neither has displayed the solidarity nor strategy needed to really support Belarusian society in its unequal struggle against the Lukashenka regime. Adjustments are urgently needed in at least five areas.
Political declarations are not enough!
The reactions of the EU and individual member states, including Germany, to the political crisis in Belarus were ambivalent. In the run-up to the presidential elections, despite an early wave of arrests and state pressure on candidates and voters, there was hardly any criticism from Europe. Only after election day and the brutal crackdown against protesters did political leaders in Brussels, Berlin and other EU capitals issue condemnations. As a result, EU foreign affairs councils and even a summit convened on the situation in Belarus, expressed their support for the democratic movement, denounced the electoral fraud and police violence of the Lukashenka regime, and finally refused to recognize the usurper in Minsk.
It soon became clear how difficult it is for the EU and Germany to go beyond political declarations. At the European level, this was evident in the question of EU sanctions against the Lukashenka regime. Initially, weeks were spent hoping for a dialogue between Lukashenka and the Belarusian democratic movement. Then, the EU switched to a policy of sanctions in the face of ongoing violence by the regime, but it took months to establish necessary unanimity among members. So far, three sanctions packages have imposed entry bans and account freezes against 88 representatives of the Belarusian state apparatus, including Lukashenka. Seven Belarusian companies with ties to Lukashenka have also been sanctioned. How slow and limited these sanctions really are becomes apparent if compared to 2010. At that time, much less pervasive and brutal repressions led to EU sanctions against 170 exponents of the Lukashenka regime within three months.
German politics is similarly toothless. To be sure, Berlin received the Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at the highest political level and expressed its solidarity with Belarusian society. A clear and comprehensive resolution by the German Bundestag also articulates this, but without anchoring the solidarity package in the federal budget. Without funding, the announced aid will remain on paper, symbolic rather than real.
In contrast, what resolute political action looks like is demonstrated by Eastern EU member states. Lithuania, in particular, plays a leading role here. It has long been an important platform for the Belarusian democratic movement. Just a week after the elections, the parliament in Vilnius called for the non-recognition of Lukashenka. Shortly thereafter, the Lithuanian government provided a home to the leadership of the democratic movement and established a humanitarian corridor, allowing countless civil rights activists to escape persecution. Then, together with its Baltic neighbors and in anticipation of later EU decisions, it introduced sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. Finally, it is the first EU country whose courts investigate and prosecute crimes committed by the Lukashenka regime.
Lukashenka‘s victims need help!
The political crisis in Belarus is a human tragedy. So far, at least four demonstrators have been killed and over 30,000 peaceful protesters arrested, criminal investigations have been launched against 900 critics of Lukashenka, over 150 political prisoners remain in custody, more than 1,100 cases of abuse in police custody have been documented, and at least 14,000 people have fled into political exile. These victims of human rights abuses are in dire need of Europe's humanitarian aid. In addition, support for the Belarusian democratic movement, civil society and independent media is required. A working group of German Belarus experts has estimated the overall aid necessary to mitigate the crisis at around 85 million euros.
To date, emergency aid has been mustered by Belarusian society itself and some EU neighbors. Solidarity funds have been created and are mainly funded by Belarusians. These provide financial support to victims of reprisals and emigres. Lithuania and Poland provide shelter to those fleeing, the Czech Republic and Latvia help with the medical rehabilitation of victims of police violence, and several Eastern EU countries have set up scholarship programs. Smaller EU funds are available for human rights activists and the media. Overall, however, the demand is barely covered by half.
In this situation, it is incomprehensible how little the EU, and especially Germany, do to face this Europe-wide challenge. Brussels has announced additional funds of 24 million euros as part of an “EU4Belarus” program, but these will only be available from mid-2021. So far, Berlin has hardly provided any aid at all. The Federal Foreign Office displays neither the financial means nor the political will nor the necessary knowledge of Belarus to implement the support that has been declared by the Bundestag. The restrictive issuing of visas by the federal government is hardly commensurate with the dramatic situation in Belarus. In short, Germany has effectively abandoned the courageous citizens of Belarus and their helpful European neighbors.
Let’s adopt the democratic movement!
The political crisis in Belarus will not be resolved in the short term. Instead, we can expect a protracted stalemate between the illegitimate Lukashenka regime (and its Russian sponsors) and Belarusian society. In this situation, it is necessary to support the long-term consolidation of the democratic movement and to prepare for a future change of power.
This means to support Belarusian society in developing political, media, civil society, cultural and academic platforms abroad that act as alternatives to those controlled by Lukashenka in Belarus. Lithuania and Poland have been doing much in this respect and for many years. They both host and support independent Belarusian media, universities, cultural centers and NGOs. This support has recently intensified. Vilnius has become the capital of the democratic movement, and both countries have welcomed thousands of political refugees. Maintaining and strengthening these émigré structures cannot, however, be the task of Lithuania and Poland alone. Instead, the EU, Germany and other EU members must get more involved.
Moreover, Europe must also reach into Belarusian society more than it has to date. This will be difficult given the restrictions and reprisals by the Lukashenka regime. An important bridge is the Europe-wide diaspora of Belarusians who have engaged impressively in the political crisis. Furthermore, much more flexible funding programs are required to bypass political pressure and state controls in Belarus and to support civil society and independent media. Finally, Europe should be as open as possible to any cross-border exchange with Belarusian society, be it through visa facilitation, scholarship programs or labor mobility. In these respects, too, the EU and Germany must engage much more actively than to date.
Russia must be held responsible!
The Belarusian crisis is primarily caused by the internal conflict between society and the state. Still, it is naive to believe that the geopolitical dimension can be ignored. Lukashenko has invoked geopolitics for fear of losing power. His assertion of a “color revolution” in Belarus that is instigated by the West was willingly accepted by Russia and has been the basis for Kremlin support of the Lukashenka regime ever since last summer. Yet the EU and, above all, Germany continue to attempt the impossible: to keep regional geopolitics out of their handling of the Belarusian crisis.
Instead, Europe should hold Russia accountable for what Lukashenka does with its support. Moscow is clearly complicit in the crimes that the leadership in Minsk has committed against the Belarusian people. It can neither have an interest in the alienation of Belarusian society from Russia, nor in the significant deterioration of already strained relations with Europe and the West. Rationally, the Kremlin does not have to fear a democratic change of power in Belarus, given the pervasive dependency of the small neighbor on Russia.
Therefore, the EU and Germany - however hard that may be for the latter - should increase the pressure on Moscow to withdraw its support for Lukashenka, promote internal dialogue in Belarus and facilitate a peaceful power transition. Ultimately, sanctions against Russia, including those against the Nordstream 2 pipeline, should be part of the repertoire, if the Kremlin refuses to exert a constructive influence on Belarus. In the absence of decisive disincentives, Russia will once again find that it can shape the future of its direct neighbors as it sees fit.
Belarus deserves a future!
Europe and Germany must also, finally, help Belarus to gain a positive future perspective. The Lukashenka regime failed to use the considerable economic potential of Belarus, its strategic position between East and West, its rich cultural heritage and good relations with all neighbors to set the country on the course of development. Certainly, it is primarily on the Belarusian democracy movement to provide such direction, but the support of the EU and individual member states will be important.
On the one hand, a comprehensive political, economic and social reform program is needed, one that is informed by the experience from those neighbors of Belarus who have successfully transformed themselves. Secondly, more intensive exchanges between Belarusian society and the EU beyond the immediate neighbors are necessary. Belarus must have the feeling of being welcomed and recognized in Europe. Finally, Belarus will require macroeconomic stabilization, which the EU should condition on democratic reforms and generously provide for.
In the long run, formal relations between Belarus and the EU will have to be reorganized. Under the Lukashenka regime, these were reduced to a minimum, without any basic contractual framework. Democratic change would open up completely new possibilities. The EU should offer anything up to and including an association agreement. That said, given the close Belarus-Russia partnership, an enhanced partnership agreement is likely more realistic.
Across these five areas, there is a clear need for action on the part of the EU and, above all, Germany. Whether towards Belarusian society, the democracy movement and the Lukashenka regime or its influential neighbor Russia, EU and German policies have so far been far too timid, fragmented and reactive. A real Belarus policy needs to combine all the above levels of action. Aid already provided by individual EU members must be coordinated more closely and, where necessary, complemented by the EU and Germany. Forward-planning is necessary for the likely long haul of the crisis in Belarus. Pressure on Minsk and on its sponsors in Moscow must be increased. And the EU needs to send clear signals on the future of Belarus in Europe.
Only then will Europe’s approach to Belarus be in true solidarity and strategic. The democratic movement in the country deserves nothing less.