Belarus: the EU fight against the last dictatorship in Europe

Employment and Social Affairs

One of the biggest risks for the European Union outside its border is coming this time from the “last dictatorship in Europe”, namely from Belarus ruled by Aleksandar Lukashenko. It appeared crystally clear even on 23 May 2021, during the forced landing in Minsk of a Ryanair flight between Athens and Vilnius, endangering aviation safety in the hearth of EU.

This operation was aimed at detaining the journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega, representative of the opposition in Belarus. Lukashenko’s unwillingness to give up power, that it is holding since 1994, have already earned him the reputation as Europe’s last dictator. After last year election, not recognized by the opposition and by the EU, he brutally repressed the huge protests that followed causing an enhancement of the tension with the West. Now, with the forced landing of one flight of a popular EU carrier as Ryanair, in the hearth of European airspace, Lukashenko is launching an open challenge to the EU.

The European Council strongly condemned the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Belarus and demanded the immediate release of Pratasevich and Sapega. The EU leaders called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to urgently investigate this unprecedented and unacceptable incident, also inviting the Council to adopt further targeted economic sanctions. The European Council called on all EU-based carriers to avoid overflight of Belarus and invited the Council to adopt the necessary measures to ban overflight of EU airspace by Belarusian airlines and prevent access to EU airports of flights operated by such airlines.

For sure this was a common and prompt reaction by the EU, but at the end of the day it risks being not enough to stop Lukashenko that is still strong thanks to Russia’s support. Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov defended Minsk’s explanation of the dramatic operation re-routing a flight between two European capitals as “reasonable”. And, in a public show of support, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko for the third time this year, just some days after the last worrying episode.

The Member of the European Parliament and Shadow Rapporteur on Belarus, Viola von Cramon, highlighted that the European Council took “watered-down conclusion” on Belarus thar are just “a cherry on top of already shamefully insignificant measures taken against the Belarusian officials”.

Such reluctance gave Lukashenka’s terrorist regime a carte balance to act without impunity and allowed him to erode the credibility of the European Union”, said Von Cramon noting that “it took the EU 9 long months and three rounds to impose sanction on only a handful of Belarusian officials”. According to her, “the EU needs to practice what it preaches, stand up for its values, show resolute and urgently and harshly punish Lukashenko Regime”, and for this reason the fourth round of sanctions “should be expanded extensively to also include non-Belarusian citizens aiding the Lukashenko Regime”.

The European Council move risks to be largely symbolic and does not have any real effect on Lukashenko’s politics. According to Dzianis Melyantsou of the Minsk Dialogue Council on International Relations, the measure could actually make Belarus more dependent on Russia as the restrictions could bankrupt the country’s state airline. “Restrictions that isolate the Belarusian people as opposed to the Belarusian government could turn Belarusians against the EU,” said Melyantsou quoted by Deutsche Welle.

Furthermore, if the EU leaders may have agreed on the principle of stronger economic sanctions, on the other hand there could be divisions within the bloc on the details of this decision. Member Countries as Germany, Italy and France, have considerable commercial ties to Belarus, and have in the past weeks were reluctant to embark on a path that may jeopardise their own economic interests. German media reported that around 350 companies could be affected by harsher measures against Belarus, including big companies as Siemens and Bosch.

Perhaps an opposite approach could bring more result, but it implies a complete change of status in the relations between EU, Belarus and even Russia. The EU Commission President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, announced that Brussels has a 3 billion euros investment package ready for Belarus that it will not freeze until the country “turns democratic”.

To bring democracy in Belarus: this is maybe one of the biggest challenges for the EU in the next future. To turn Lukashenko democratic, it appears nowadays a mission impossible, furthermore if he has the support of Putin; while just supporting the leader of Belarus opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, unfortunately could not bring to an end of the last dictatorship in Europe.

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