What the EU should do to end state terror in Belarus
True to his image as Europe's last dictator, Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko has just added two more crimes to a long list of repressions against his own people.
Most tragically, he denied pardon to two young men convicted in a rigged trial for a metro bombing in the capital Minsk and had them executed last week despite domestic and international protests. Belarus remains the only country in Europe that still carries out the death penalty - a particularly frightening prospect in a country with a terrible human rights record.
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Lukashenko has also drawn up a list of Belarusian democrats who are barred from traveling abroad, effectively taking hostage some 150 opposition leaders, human rights activists, and independent journalists.
Belarus' first post-Soviet leader, Stanislau Shushkevich, was prevented from leaving the country this past weekend after authorities removed him from a train bound for Lithuania. This travel ban runs counter to Belarusian law which denies exit only to debtors, draft dodgers, and criminal suspects.
Both moves came in retaliation for Europe's recent extension of sanctions against the Belarusian regime. Earlier, Lukashenko expelled the ambassadors of Poland and the European Union.
Ostensibly designed to show he remains in firm control, these moves instead reveal a leader increasingly unstable and dangerous. For the EU, which borders Belarus, the response should be more and tougher sanctions against Lukashenko, not an easing of pressure, to speed up the demise of his regime.
His autocratic rule only functions if ordinary people are intimidated, if those speaking out in favor of democratic change are silenced and if his own repressive apparatus remains loyal to him.
Consequently, Belarus' strongman has constantly reminded his countrymen that the state will provide for their welfare only if they refrain from open political criticism.
He has systematically eliminated the space available to civil society and independent media, by outlawing NGOs and imprisoning, torturing and even killing outspoken dissidents. Key state institutions, such as Belarus' pervasive security structures, are tied to the ruler by legal impunity and criminal enrichment, both of which are guaranteed only for as long as Lukashenko is in charge.
However, these underpinnings of the Belarusian dictatorship have increasingly worn out their welcome of late.
A massive economic crisis engulfed the country last year. Amid declining living standards, Lukashenko's support among Belarusians has dropped to less than a quarter of the population.
Adding to social discontent is the resilience of the democratic movement. It ran a forceful campaign prior to the 2010 presidential elections, and after the poll was massively rigged in Lukashenko's favor, tens of thousands turned out in protest.
Despite a brutal crackdown to end all dissidence, protests and strikes continue, and critical discussion especially through the Internet has replaced the once omniscient state propaganda. Lukashenko even restructured his omnipotent security apparatus, in a sign of increasing paranoia on the part of the dictator.
Amid questions about his power, Lukashenko has received further blows from abroad. First, Russia started to tighten the economic lifeline it provides to Belarus by placing more extreme conditions on subsidies and loans, including closer integration and handover of strategic assets to Russia.
To stay in power, Lukashenko has ceded control over pipeline operator Beltransgaz, effectively sacrificing Belarus' independence in the process.
Next, Europe turned away from Lukashenko after he rejected democratic reform in exchange for Western aid. Worse still for him, Europe steadily expanded its sanctions against his regime and increased support for Belarusian democrats.
Finally, the Arab spring ousted some of Lukashenko's closest allies, and the gruesome fate of Libya's Gaddafi probably gave the Belarus strongman quite a fright.
In short, Lukashenko is seriously weakened from within and without. He tries hard to appear strong and confident but signs of angst and desperation are getting harder to hide. This creates an unprecedented opening for Belarusian democrats and their Western, primarily European, partners to press for change in Belarus. As European foreign ministers meet on March 23 to determine their further course of action, they must seize this opportunity.
After Lukashenko expelled the EU and Polish envoys to protest EU sanctions last month, European countries responded with remarkable resolve by recalling all their ambassadors.
The EU should make a return to full diplomatic representation contingent on the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners, including presidential candidates Andrei Sannikov and Mikola Statkevich and human rights defender Ales Bialistki. Until that time, the EU should order out all Belarusian ambassadors from European capitals.
In parallel, the EU should expand the visa ban for individuals associated with the Belarusian regime, including those of Lukashenko's key financiers, of persons involved in the investigation, trial and execution of the two alleged metro bombers, and of bureaucrats administering the recently imposed travel bans against Belarusian democrats.
This will signal to Lukashenko's accomplices that their repressive actions do not go unnoticed and unpunished.
Finally, and most importantly, Europe should plug some of its economic ties with Belarus.
Over the last year alone, Belarusian trade with Europe has grown by 220 percent, according to a recent report. These revenues help to sustain Lukashenko's apparatus of terror rather than benefiting the country's population.
It is imperative that Belarusian companies, including those trading in oil products and fertilizers, Belarus' premier export commodities, and specifically Belaruskali, are banned from operating with and in EU countries.
A corollary effect is that the companies in question will become unattractive for investors and for those interested in a hostile take-over, preventing the sell-out of Belarus' family silver, as planned by the regime.
Harsh as they may seem by EU standards, these measures are both necessary and possible - now. Necessary, because Lukashenko's regime is looking into the abyss, and only decisive action on part of Europe can help to avert even more terror imposed on the Belarusian people. Possible, because, more than ever, a broad coalition of European countries seems resolved to erase the ugly face of dictatorship from the EU's very doorstep.
David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House in Washington. Joerg Forbrig directs the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin