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The EU faces a dilemma over Lukashenka

Europe must support democracy in Belarus but without pushing the country under Russia’s firm control, writes Charles Grant.

Even by its own standards, the electoral fraud committed by the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka was breath-taking. The president claims to have won 80 per cent of the votes in the August 9th election, and that his chief opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, took only about 10 per cent. In fact the true result – based on returns reported by the hundred-odd polling stations that refused to fiddle the figures – was probably 70-80 per cent for Tsikhanouskaya and around 10 per cent for the president.

Superficially, this presidential election looks like all the others during Lukashenka’s 26-year reign. Every time, he wins easily and locks up his most significant opponents. But in fact this time was very different. In previous elections the president did not have to falsify the numbers enormously, because he was genuinely popular with large sections of society.

This time there were, initially, three serious opposition candidates – Valery Tsapkala, a former diplomat, Viktar Babaryka, a former banker, and Siarhey Tsikhanouski, an anti-corruption blogger. When there were signs of voters warming to them, Lukashenka turned to tried and tested methods of repression. But after the first of the three fled the country and the second and third were gaoled, Tsikhanouskaya – the wife of Tsikhanouski – emerged as a credible candidate, unifying the opposition forces.

The president is famously contemptuous of women’s abilities, which is why he made the mistake of permitting her candidacy. Tsikhanouskaya’s honest and unpolitical campaign – she promised to rule for only six months, till fresh elections could enable the liberated opposition leaders to run – rallied large numbers of citizens to her cause.

The biggest change from previous elections is that Belarusian civil society has gained power and confidence this year. The population was already discontented, because of falling living standards. Then came COVID-19, which the president ignored, refusing to impose a lockdown. Citizens organised themselves to cope with the pandemic. Next, as the presidential election approached, the regime’s brutal repression stirred up citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom queued to sign nomination papers for opposition candidates. The leaderless protests of the past few days show that civil society remains strong.

Tsikhanouskaya claimed, with good reason, to have been the true winner of this election. But on August 10th she was detained for seven hours, forced to record a video calling on her supporters to recognise the official result and effectively made to leave for Lithuania.

The regime controls the security forces and has no intention of ceding power any time soon. The longer term is much less certain, however, since the president has lost legitimacy, even among many of those who used to support him.

Regime change will not happen unless the people keep demonstrating and striking, week after week, and the elite splinters. So far there have been just a few minor splinters – the election officials who reported true voting figures, the policemen in provincial towns who have refused to sweep away demonstrators and the TV news readers who have resigned.

Outside forces can make a difference to what happens in the country. Vladimir Putin congratulated Lukashenka on his re-election (as did China’s Xi Jinping), with a heavy hint that Belarus will have to accept more integration with Russia in order to maintain friendly relations. Putin and Lukashenka have a notoriously prickly relationship: the Belarusian has played every conceivable trick to avoid closer ties to Russia. But now he has run out of road and has nowhere to turn to for financial support except Russia.

Putin is probably happy with the outcome of the presidential election: it leaves Lukashenka weaker and more dependent on Russia. But if Lukashenka were to stumble, and some sort of colour revolution began in Belarus, Putin would be very concerned.

The Russian president will presumably try to avoid an overt military intervention, since the cost – in terms of reputation, treasure and perhaps blood – could be considerable. In any case there are plenty of levers that he can pull in order to influence the country without having to send in troops. For example, Russia can cut off or change the price of the energy supplies on which Belarus depends.

The EU has fewer effective levers for influencing the country. One reason it has acted so cautiously over Belarus is that it fears greater Russian involvement. The EU removed sanctions in 2016 because Lukashenka released political prisoners, and it subsequently engineered a rapprochement. It was happy to see Minsk move a little further away from Moscow. But Lukashenka has now destroyed that rapprochement and the only questions are when the sanctions come and how severe they should be. Tough EU sanctions, however, would leave Lukashenka with little alternative but to beg Russia to sort out his economic and political problems.

The EU knows that it has to stay true to its principles of supporting democracy and the rule of law, even if there are geopolitical risks vis-à-vis Belarus’s relationship with Russia. As Linus Linkevičius, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the BBC on the day after the election: “Preserving Belarus’s independence must not come at the cost of the country’s freedom”. If the EU decided to maintain friendly relations with Lukashenka, for the sake of reducing Russia’s options, it would betray its own principles and lose credibility, not only with Belarusians but also with many other people.

In light of the post-election violence, the EU has warned the Belarusian regime that it will review relations and may impose sanctions. The EU will go for targeted visa and financial sanctions against the officials responsible for human rights abuse, and also against those guilty of electoral fraud. Such sanctions will hurt – members of the elite and their families love to shop in Vilnius and other Western cities.

But the EU will try to avoid measures that would harm the people, such as suspending its recent visa facilitation agreement with Belarus.

What exactly it decides will depend on events in the coming days. Its August 11th statement calls on the country’s leaders to engage in “a genuine and inclusive dialogue with broader society to avoid further violence”. The more the regime thumbs its nose at the EU and escalates the use of force, the stronger the measures that the 27 will take.

The wheels of the EU’s decision-making machinery move slowly, but it must not tarry over sanctions. Many Belarusians want the EU to act speedily, in order to incentivise the regime to behave better – and they would take the imposition of sanctions as an act of moral support, which is something they need at a difficult time.

Nobody can be sure what will happen in Belarus. The situation could become much worse, with the state resorting to extreme violence. But there is also a more optimistic scenario, in which civil society continues to strengthen and elements of the regime agree to some sort of dialogue with the opposition, while doing their best to reassure Russia that they seek friendly relations with it (as Armenia did during its democratic transition in 2018).

For their part, Western powers must make clear to Russia through private diplomacy that any attempt to take over the country by military or more surreptitious means would lead to immediate, precise and significant measures against its political and economic elite. At the same time they should tell Russia that they do not intend to draw Belarus into Western-led security structures. Ultimately, change in Belarus will depend on the Belarusian people, but Europe and the US can do their bit to help.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform (CER). A longer version of this article was first published on the CER website under the title: “Lukashenka fights for survival”.