Meeting in Brussels on February 15, the EU’s foreign ministers decided not to extend most of the sanctions imposed on Belarus. As a result, the restrictive measures in the form of an entry ban to the EU and the freezing of assets against 170 Belarusians, including the President, and 3 Belarusian defence companies will lapse on February 29.
The arms embargo and the sanctions against four members of Lukashenko’s security service — who are suspected of the involvement in the unresolved disappearance of political opponents of the Belarusian president — were maintained and extended for the period of 12 months.
The EU first imposed sanctions against Belarus in 2004 and gradually extended them following a series of flawed elections. Then, last year in October, the Foreign Affairs Council agreed on a four-month suspension of most of the restrictive measures. This was a response to the release of political prisoners in August last year — a step long called for by the EU. Also, Minsk authorities’ involvement and mediation in the talks on resolving the conflict in Ukraine did not go unnoticed.
In her remarks after the Council meeting, High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini referred to “a positive trend that we need and we want to encourage.” In particular, the resumption of the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, the negotiations on Visa Facilitations and Readmissions Agreement and on Mobility Partnership were among the welcomed initiatives.
The Council justified its decision to lift sanctions with “steps taken by Belarus over the last two years that have contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations”, recognized an opportunity to develop a more positive agenda and to achieve progress in a variety of fields through enhanced channels of communication. At the same time, it remained “concerned with the situation of human rights in Belarus”, in particular, the lack of reinstating the civil and political rights of the released political prisoners. Ministers also urged Minsk to set up a moratorium on the death penalty and swiftly implement OSCE ODIHR recommendations regarding the democratic election process before this year’s parliamentary elections.
Lifting sanctions prompted widespread criticism, in particular from the democratic opposition leaders in Belarus who stressed that it will result in another undemocratic election in the fall this year, and warned of negative consequences it will have on Belarusian people, the civil society and independent media.
Commenting on the Council’s decision, Bogdan Zdrojewski, Chairman for the European Parliament Delegation for relations with Belarus, said that the decision was “correct but time will show whether it was also good”, meaning it will be judged by its consequences. The first test will be the upcoming parliamentary election.
An OSCE ODIHR final report from the Election Observation Mission to the October’s election concluded that Belarus had a “considerable way go to in meeting its OSCE commitments for democratic elections,” noting the need for a comprehensive legal reform of the electoral process as “significant problems, particularly during the counting of votes and tabulation of election results, undermined the integrity of the election.”
Additionally, the UN’s special rapporteur on Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, has identified no changes in “the dismal human rights situation” in the country since the presidential election.
Only a day after the Council had announced its decision to lift the sanctions, the authorities in Minsk delivered another death sentence. This could be seen as laughing in the face of the EU and their plea for the moratorium on the death penalty.
Moreover, established on February 12 to investigate the OSCE ODIHR recommendations, an interagency working group of experts informed that no OSCE ODIHR recommendations that require changes to the Constitution can be implemented before the upcoming election due to time constraints, and that the possibility to implement the remaining ones will be discussed. Another blow.
As if that hadn’t been enough, on February 18, a leading Belarusian independent news website Charter97.org informed that Belarus demanded Polish authorities to stop supporting its activities as well as to block the website for Internet users inside the country.
Nevertheless, the EU will keep demanding reforms of the electoral law before the upcoming parliamentary election, which could ensure the opposition gets a chance to become represented in the newly elected Parliament. The demands for a full democratization of the election process will not be met. But the upcoming election could be a chance to push for the implementation of at least the most necessary reforms: (1) to ensure a genuinely pluralistic composition of election commissions so that opposition representatives are present at all levels and (2) to guarantee a transparent counting and tabulation of the votes.
The EU was likely motivated by geopolitical considerations and saw a window of opportunity for the EU-Belarus relations in the light of the recent Russian politics. By doing this, it has, however, deprived itself of a valuable tool that would allow it to react in a relatively swift manner to any worsening internal political situation in the country. From this point of view, extending sanctions with their simultaneous suspension until the upcoming election would have been a solution that would leave more space for maneuver.
Additionally, although the sanctions might have been ineffective and did not fulfil their pragmatic goal, they did carry an important political message to the Belarusian authorities. It is likely that lifting the sanctions by Brussels will incline the US Congress to do the same with the the American sanctions expiring at the end of April.
Lukashenko’s turning towards the EU was primarily motivated by the crumbling of Belarus’s economy and the need for financial support. Since 2011, the growth of Belarusian economy has slowed substantially. Russia — Belarus’ oldest ally and main economic partner — is less likely to deliver help this time due to its own economic difficulties. Therefore, the authorities in Minsk look for financial support elsewhere.
Freed from sanctions Belarus will gain access to EU aid. This will allow it to improve both its credit rating and thus its attractiveness to investors, but also to continue talks with the International Monetary Fund on a $3 billion assistance program that could stabilise the country’s economic situation.
Lifting sanctions unconditionally before the evaluation of the upcoming parliamentary election by international observers is controversial. Only time will show whether it was a good one. In order to make its policy effective now, the EU will need a coherent strategy towards Belarus based on deliverables. The EU’s support should be made conditional and linked to political reforms in the field of universal fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, and human rights.
About the author:
Katarzyna Sobieraj is Head of parliamentary office of Bogdan Zdrojewski, Chair of the European Parliament Delegation to relations with Belarus; served as an election observer to the OSCE ODIHR EOM for Presidential election in Belarus in 2015; PhD researcher in political communication and media studies at the University of Wrocław, Poland. Her primary research interests are in political discourse, communicating the EU, and EU foreign affairs. She is the co-author of ”The Battle for the Euro: Metaphors and Frames in the Euro Crisis News.” in The Euro Crisis in the News: Journalistic Coverage of the Economic Crisis and European Institutions (I.B. Tauris, 2015, in association with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford), and the author of The Rhetoric of Freedom in the US Presidential Campaign 2008 (LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2012).
Email: email@example.com, Twitter: @ksobieraj