Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Opinion

How Lukashenka is trying to outsmart the West, again

Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus, may have freed political prisoners Andrei Sannikov and Dmitry Bondarenko over Orthodox Easter but his actions are entirely disingenuous.

This “act of mercy” followed 16 months of torture and psychological harassment. Sannikov is a former presidential candidate and unless there is a change in the country, his conviction record will only clear in eight years.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • 'The regime in Belarus is using political prisoners as pawns to maintain lucrative trade ties with the EU' (Photo: Amnesty International)

This is a small victory. But charges remain against Sannikov and Bondarenka as well as several dozen other political prisoners released earlier. They are also deprived of civil and political rights.

Fourteen more political prisoners are still behind bars and are subject to degrading treatment, while the human rights situation in the country worsens.

Since December, at first through envoys of the regime and then coming from none other than Lukashenka himself, one could hear repeated demands to the West for “unconditional dialogue with no pressure”.

Lukashenka’s need for such negotiations seems to be so pressing that the push for dialogue with the West is not limited to official statements. It now also involves constant government pressure on a number of civil society organisations that could assist the dictator in convincing the EU to engage with the regime.

“Dialogue” is needed to prevent expansion of economic sanctions by the EU and allow Belarus to profit from its EU trade without having to change its repressive policies at home.

Experts warned that after elections in Russia, Lukashenka would turn away from Moscow and onto Europe. He would be unable to deliver past promises to Vladimir Putin of further integration into Russia. Russian integration had been an argument Lukashenka used to get discounted Russian oil and natural gas.

Today, Putin is in no mood to sponsor Lukashenka’s regime in exchange for empty promises. He demands Belarus sell key assets to Russian companies. But Lukashenka knows too well that selling off key assets would undermine his own regime.

Lukashenka received everything he could from Russia for this year. Above all, cheap oil. Now his main objective is to keep reselling oil-based products to the West for as long as possible.

Europe is Belarus’ only viable market for such goods, and oil and oil products make 60 percent of its exports to the EU. Exports from Belarus to EU countries increased 2.6 times, compared to last year, while the surplus of trade with the EU is up 8.5 times.

It is also crunch time for the regime since its multi-billion foreign loans are maturing. It also needs money to increase salaries and pensions on the eve of the so-called parliamentary elections in September.

EU sanctions on Belarusian oil and oil product exports into Europe would wreak havoc with the regime. Lukashenka’s main task now is to prevent the expansion of EU sanctions while earning a few extra billion off its EU-destined exports.

Paradoxically, Europe's purchase of Belarusian oil products reinforces its dependence on Russia. By releasing the two prisoners in April, Lukashenka was able to gain some time. Expansion of sanctions against Belarus has not been discussed at recent EU Council meetings.

Lukashenka then made another move when he promised amnesty on 3 July that may (but also may not) include releasing some of the remaining political prisoners. It means that the EU will likely refrain from passing any new measures against Belarus before then, fearing that they would jeopardize the release of another batch of political prisoners.

In addition to continuing its successful trade relations with Europe, the Belarus government has a few other tricks up its sleeve. A Belarus delegation visited Washington DC in April for the spring meeting of the IMF and the World Bank where they discussed prospects of a new credit line in exchange for economic reforms.

Another headache for the regime is the June session of the UN Human Rights Council. It is to hear a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in Belarus based on a year-long monitoring.

Many countries and NGOs express concern over the mounting human rights crisis in the country and advocate adoption of a tough resolution as well as appointing a UN special rapporteur on Belarus.

Belarus ignores its human rights obligations and numerous resolutions by the UN and other international organisations. However, it is working hard for recognition of “certain progress in human rights” in Geneva based on the release of Sannikov and Bondarenko.

If such an assessment prevails in the UN instead of a tough resolution and further scrutiny by a special rapporteur, it will pave the way for new loans and reopening “dialogue” with the West. Without the rapporteur, Belarus will deteriorate further with a tacit support from the international community.

The EU should not succumb to the thrill of a quick victory which may turn out to be a defeat if it is not followed by a roadmap for change. Demands for systemic change based on clear measurable benchmarks must be at the heart of all discussions with Belarus.

The EU has enough economic leverage to influence Lukashenka and it has already proven its effectiveness.

The question remains whether EU leaders have enough political will to break out of the vicious circle and prevent the dictator’s scenario of remaining in power from being implemented.

The writers are coordinators of the Working Group on Investments of the Committee for International Control of the Human Rights Situation in Belarus

Taking full benefit of supercomputers in Europe

Newly-announced financial help for so-called 'supercomputers' can help both EU member states, and small and medium-sized companies to grow - in fields such as health diagnostics, driverless cars and even earthquake predicting.

Ten Commandments to overcome the EU's many crises

A series of missteps - from the faulty institutional infrastructure of the euro, to the migration crisis - have left the EU battered and in near crisis. Here are ten steps to re-democratise the union.

EU's 'old men' must pressure Poland on abortion rights

Despite fresh crackdowns on Poland's already restrictive abortion laws, EU commission president Juncker did not raise the issue with the new Polish PM Morawiecki - perhaps because it was an all-male event?

Ten Commandments to overcome the EU's many crises

A series of missteps - from the faulty institutional infrastructure of the euro, to the migration crisis - have left the EU battered and in near crisis. Here are ten steps to re-democratise the union.

EU's 'old men' must pressure Poland on abortion rights

Despite fresh crackdowns on Poland's already restrictive abortion laws, EU commission president Juncker did not raise the issue with the new Polish PM Morawiecki - perhaps because it was an all-male event?

News in Brief

  1. Germany confirms attendance at air quality summit
  2. Nearly half of 'fixed' Dieselgate cars show problems
  3. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook up hate speech deletion
  4. UK mulls bridge to France
  5. German far-right float anti-asylum bill
  6. EU Parliament to investigate glyphosate-decision process
  7. 'Mutagenesis' falls outside EU's GMO rules, says EU top lawyer
  8. Decision on Polish MEP's Nazi-era slur postponed

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  2. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  4. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  5. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  6. Dialogue PlatformRoundtable on "Political Islam, Civil Islam and The West" 31 January
  7. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  8. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  9. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  10. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  11. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit
  12. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted

Latest News

  1. Middle East, Messi and missing MEPs on the agenda This WEEK
  2. Instagram and Google Plus join EU anti-hate speech drive
  3. EU wants 'entrepreneurship' in education systems
  4. UK loses EU satellite centre to Spain
  5. Pay into EU budget for market access, Macron tells May
  6. Ethiopian regime to get EU migrants' names
  7. EU to lend Greece up to €7bn more next week
  8. Nato prepares to take in Macedonia

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  2. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  3. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  4. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  5. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  6. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  7. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  8. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  9. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  10. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  11. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  12. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap