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Stricter sanctions needed after the EU condems Lukashenko’s plane hijacking

Belarus made many headlines this week as a result of the “hijacking” of a Ryanair plane. On board were critical journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich (26) and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega (23), who were detained immediately when the plane landed in the country’s capital Minsk. The international community cried fowl and the European Union (EU) strongly condemned the hijacking. The European Council unanimously agreed to impose further sanctions on the country. However, the sanctions in its current form are not likely to accomplish much. If the EU truly wants to trigger any democratic change in Belarus, it needs to step up its game and hit President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime where it hurts.

Hijacking a plane proves step to far for EU leaders

Many political activist within and outside of Belarus, such as opposition leader in exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya , have been calling for more severe EU sanctions on Belarus for months now. Large-scale protests erupted in the country after Lukashenko declared he had decisively won the August 2020 elections. The results were widely disputed and the EU, among many international actors, refused to recognize them. As the crackdown of journalists and violence against protesters intensified, the EU had repeatedly considered installing heavier sanctions. Little came of it though, as the human rights violations in Belarus continued.

Even those critical of additional sanctions, such as Victor Orbán’s Hungarian government, agreed that the recent incident was where a line needed to be drawn. Hijacking a commercial plane to arrest a critical journalist flying over Belarus under way from Greece to Lithuania, caused EU member state leaders to “have had enough of it”. EU leaders, such a Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, called for a “swift and severe” reaction to Belarus. On a European Council meeting on May 24 all leaders attending unanimously agreed to adopt “additional listings of individuals and entities”, as well as to “further targeted economic sanctions”.

Strong words are not yet followed up with strong actions

Though the EU’s statement sounds promising, there is enough reason to believe that these additional sanctions will not be severe enough to sway Lukashenko’s mind. So far the EU has, with little effect, implemented asset freezes and visa bans on 88 individuals and seven entities. It has merely become more difficult for them to travel to and do business within the EU. Adding some more officials, involved with the hijacking of the plane, to the current list will change nothing in this regard. Moreover, banning all Belarussian airlines, which in practice consists of BELAVIA Belarusian Airlines solely, from flying on EU airports also is expected to alter little.

The only way through which the EU could coerce Lukashenko to release journalists such as Protasevich, is with more widely imposed economic sanctions. The EU is currently exploring ways to “further targeted economic sanctions”, which would in practice mean an expansion of the already existing framework. The recent events have triggered a breakthrough, as this already fourth round of sanctions had been under discussion for a longer time already. However, much more needs to be done if the EU wants its actions to match its strong words. If Lukashenko “needs to be punished” for his actions, the EU should hit him where it hurts.

Economic sanctions must hit Lukashenko’s entire state system

The EU decision on May 24, to add those involved with the hijacking to the already existing sanction list, came swift, it was not so much a severe action. It is a positive sign that the momentum was there to quickly agree on such points, but much more needs to be done. If the EU truly wants to do something about the country’s ongoing journalist detentions and opposition protest crackdowns, it needs to sanctions Lukashenko’s entire state system. Not only a few hundred Lukashenko-allies need to be sanctions, but the numerous Belarusian state companies need to be added to the sanction list too. That is where it will truly hurt Lukashenko’s regime.

Although the private sector has been growing in recent years, large parts of the Belarusian economy consist of state-owned companies. Sanctioning these enterprises will put pressure on the willingness of those running the firms and involved with them to back Lukashenko’s rule. The reason why this has not been done though, might have everything to do with EU’s economic interests. Many of such Belarusian state companies supply larger European enterprises, such as Ikea. The same goes specifically for sanctions on oil and chemical enterprises, as well as the profitable “transfer fees” that Belarus continues to gain.

If the EU would suddenly stop importing affordable gas from Russia, which is largely transported through Belarus, Lukashenko would also stop receiving large sums of transfer fees. The fact that there are strong economic interests involved, only shows the effectiveness of potential actions. Due to the EU’s structure, with 27 member states each having their economic interests, strong actions in this regard are often difficult. Yet, the situation is different now, with a “green light” from all EU member states for stricter sanctions. As the country’s second largest trading partner, the EU should use this opportunity to turn its economic power into political leverage.

Support for political activists and civil society should follow

The EU is already working towards a wide array of sanctions, agreed upon in the May 24 European Council meeting. There was wide consensus that Lukashenko’s personal ordering of the plane hijacking was unacceptable. Dutch Labour Party Member of Parliament Kati Piri called it “North Korean practices” and there are arguably few Europeans who would find Lukashenko’s handling acceptable. In addition to the economic sanctions, an investigation into the case should swiftly be initiated, also focusing on the role of Russia. It has so far backed Lukashenko’s handling of the events and allegedly was aware of the hijacking beforehand.

The EU has already made itself perfectly clear and has demanded the immediate release of Protasevich and Sapega. It should maintain this pressure on Lukashenko in the future though. An additional point was raised by Dutch Labour Party Euro-parliamentarian Thijs Reuten, who called on the European Commission to support Belarusian activists both outside the country, such as Tsikhanouskaya, as inside the country. Political dissidents should be helped to flee the country and those who already reside in other countries should be better protected. Another attack on the freedom of speech and independence of media cannot take place again.   

The more extensive set of sanctions must go together with forms of aid to civil society in Belarus. The current political climate has made this difficult, thus the EU must explore alternative ways to do this. The aim of combining widely imposed economic sanctions with a support package for civil society, should be to hand Belarusian activists the best tools to trigger change. It is no given that this will be effective right away. However, the EU needs to do much more if it wants to “send a clear message”. As a promoter and protector of human rights and democracy, the EU cannot afford to let the hijacking of a plane to arrest a journalist go by.

Image: Wikimedia (Alexander Lukashenko, 2020)

Sources: Aljazeera, AP, BBC, Carnegie, Clingendael, DW, Euractiv, Euronews, Gzero, Reuters1, Reuters2, Rferl1, Rferl2, Rferl3, Time