Thursday

19th Apr 2018

Opinion

Why the EU must counter Belarus' latest provocation

  • A light plane was flown into Belarusian airspace, dropping hundreds of teddy bears carrying free speech messages in a stunt pulled by a Swedish PR agency (Photo: studiototal.se)

At the height of the summer, when European politics typically winds down, the EU finds itself in a diplomatic spat with one of its neighbours, the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.

Last week, the strongman in Minsk expelled the Swedish ambassador for being “obstructive” in their bilateral relations. Stockholm, in turn, declared the incoming Belarusian envoy unwelcome and asked two further diplomats to leave.

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.

Belarus then fully closed its embassy in the Swedish capital and demanded that Sweden withdraw its own diplomatic personnel.

However, this latest provocation by Lukashenko must not be reduced to a bilateral affair. Instead, it cuts to the heart of European policy towards Belarus and calls for a strong and unified response by the EU, even if this requires extraordinary political mobilisation at an inconvenient moment.

The immediate pretext for Lukashenko's undiplomatic offensive was a stunt pulled by a Swedish PR agency in July.

A light plane was flown into Belarusian airspace, dropping hundreds of teddy bears carrying free speech messages. Nothing could have been more embarrassing for the Belarusian regime, which tirelessly touts its own importance as a strategic partner and as a buffer shielding Russia from Nato.

An infuriated Lukashenko has since been struggling hard to regain his standing with the Russians, his primary sponsor. He fired his air defence and border security chiefs, but that may not have been enough for Putin & Co.

So, Lukashenko has prompted a scandal, mirroring Moscow's own increasingly confrontational approach to the international parquet.

Yet the context and consequences of this dispute run deeper. Lukashenko has long sought to neuter Western embassies in Minsk.

In 2008, he threw out the United States ambassador and most of its staff. Earlier this year, he expelled the Polish and EU envoys, and subsequently stated that he would decide which European ambassadors would be allowed to stay. Apparently, the Swedish ambassador was not one of them.

Notably, this series of attacks has targeted those envoys and countries that are particularly outspoken in their criticism and that have openly engaged with the Belarusian democratic movement as much as with government officials.

Adding insult to injury for Lukashenko, Sweden's expelled envoy, Stefan Eriksson was popular among citizens-at-large, not least because of his command of the local language.

Nothing is more important, however, than a strong and engaged presence of European diplomats in Belarus.

Lukashenko long since purged his country of most Western institutions. No international organisation dealing with democracy and human rights remains since the the European pro-democracy club, the OSCE was forced to close its office.

No major Western NGOs or foundations are allowed in Belarus, and co-operation with and funding from them is a criminal offence under Belarusian law. This makes Western embassies the only legal contact point and partner for those that strive for democratic change in Belarus.

State apparatchiks, many of whom understand the necessity of reform, find space there for frank discussions. And for citizens broadly, the diplomatic missions of EU countries are a rare window to Europe, which remains a distant dream for so many Belarusians.

Lukashenko now seems determined to shut down these much-needed open spaces. By making an example of Sweden, he is telling the Western diplomatic community that their choice is between political acquiescence and expulsion.

Europe must not, however, allow the Belarusian regime to effectively decide who its envoys in Minsk are and what their work consists of. It has to assert this point by reacting strongly to Lukashenko's latest provocation.

In the first place, EU members should show solidarity with Sweden and withdraw their envoys immediately.

At the same time, all Belarusian ambassadors posted to EU capitals should be asked to return to Minsk to deliver a unified message: interference with the work of any European diplomatic mission is inadmissible and will prompt an EU-wide response.

The return to diplomatic normality should be conditional on the renewed accreditation and unhindered return of the expelled Swedish ambassador.

In parallel, and while diplomatic relations are effectively suspended, the EU should prepare a fresh package of sanctions, targeting in particular the economic lifeline of the Belarusian regime. These should be imposed without delay, unless Lukashenko finally releases and rehabilitates all political prisoners, the EU's central demand.

There is good reason to expect that this strategy will yield concessions.

In the first place, strong responses have succeeded in the past. When in February of this year, the EU and Polish envoys were expelled, all European ambassadors left and a set of political and economic measures against Minsk was swiftly imposed.

Within less than eight weeks, full diplomatic representation was restored and two key political prisoners were set free by the Belarusian authorities.

Secondly, a concerted and strong response will jolt EU policy into action after a period of dormancy since spring this year.

After scoring a political victory, and despite pleas to the contrary by Belarusian democrats, the EU did not continue a pro-active policy of pressure. It suspended efforts to push Lukashenko, who instantly tightened the screws on Belarusian democrats.

Since then, conditions for political prisoners have deteriorated, new arrests were made, parliamentary elections have taken place with even fewer opportunities for the political opposition than in the past, and a show trial is underway against two Belarusians implicated in the recent “teddy bear assault."

Finally, Lukashenko's newest attempt to scare what he considers weak European politics is itself wrong-footed.

He reckons that the EU will shy away from breaking diplomatic relations, thereby severing one of the last communication channels with the Belarusian regime and society alike. Yet his Achilles’ heel is that he badly needs his own diplomatic personnel in EU capitals.

For years, their job has been to sabotage efforts at a Europe-wide consensus on stricter policy towards Belarus.

A credible threat by the EU to this political resource will quickly prompt Lukashenko to re-admit EU ambassadors.

In short, the EU should swiftly call Lukashenko’s bluff.

Whether a consequence of his usual impulsiveness or of desperation over his dwindling power, he has handed the EU an opportunity to reclaim the initiative and to drive a more effective policy towards Belarus again.

The EU must seize this moment, for the sake of its own political legitimacy, as much as that of the embattled democratic movement in Belarus.

Joerg Forbrig directs the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

More commitment to renewables from Council, please

More and more consumers are likely to invest in solar panels in the future as it becomes simpler to produce one's own electricity, writes Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation.

EU should ensure sustainable Cohesion Policy

As the EU Council kicks off negotiations over the post-2020 budget, ministers have have an opportunity to create a framework that will unlock innovative financing and scale up the citizen-led clean energy transformation

How to reset EU-Burma relations

Europe should go back to its pre-2012 policy, wipe away aid and trade benefits, and tie democratic efforts to the reinstatement of benefits.

News in Brief

  1. Report: Facebook to carve 1.5bn users out of EU privacy law
  2. Greek court ruling permits migrants to travel to mainland
  3. Commonwealth summit hopes for trade boost after Brexit
  4. Merkel and Macron meet to finetune eurozone reform plans
  5. Turkey snap elections set for 24 June
  6. Post-Brexit UK passports to be printed in France after all
  7. EU Parliament condemns Selmayr appointment
  8. EU trade commissioner: we are not offering US anything

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Martens CentreJoin Us at NET@WORK2018 Featuring Debates on Migration, Foreign Policy, Populism & Disinformation
  2. European Jewish CongressKantor Center Annual Report on Antisemitism Worldwide - The Year the Mask Came Off
  3. UNICEFCalls for the Protection of Children in the Gaza Strip
  4. Mission of China to the EUForeign Minister Wang Yi Highlights Importance of China-EU Relations
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersImmigration and Integration in the Nordic Region - Getting the Facts Straight
  6. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMacedonians in Bulgaria Demand to End the Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  7. Counter BalanceThe EIB Needs to Lead by Example on Tax Justice
  8. ILGA EuropeTrans People in Sweden to be Paid Compensation for Forced Sterilisation
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsThe Danger of Standing Up for Justice and Rights in Central Asia
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Must Work Together to Promote Global Steel Sector
  11. Swedish EnterprisesEU Tax Proposal on Digital Services Causes Concern for Small Exporting Economies
  12. Europea Jewish CongressCondemns the Horrific Murder of Holocaust Survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris

Latest News

  1. Draghi to stay part of secretive 'lobby' group
  2. Bulgaria offers lesson in tackling radical-right populists
  3. Getting secret EU trilogue documents: a case study
  4. Selmayr case scars Parliament and Commission
  5. Beyond macho: Turkish-EU ties
  6. 'Flobert' guns - Europe's latest terror loophole
  7. EU investment bank confirms secrecy of VW fraud report
  8. More commitment to renewables from Council, please

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUAn Open China Will Foster a World-Class Business Environment
  2. EUobserverStart a Career in EU Media. Apply Now to Become Our Next Sales Associate
  3. EUobserverHiring - Finance Officer With Accounting Degree or Experience - Apply Now!
  4. ECR GroupAn Opportunity to Help Shape a Better Future for Europe
  5. Counter BalanceControversial Turkish Azerbaijani Gas Pipeline Gets Major EU Loan
  6. World VisionSyria’s Children ‘At Risk of Never Fully Recovering', New Study Finds
  7. Macedonian Human Rights MovementMeets with US Congress Member to Denounce Anti-Macedonian Name Negotiations
  8. Martens CentreEuropean Defence Union: Time to Aim High?
  9. UNESDAWatch UNESDA’s President Toast Its 60th Anniversary Year
  10. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Condemns MEP Ana Gomes’s Anti-Semitic Remark, Calls for Disciplinary Action
  11. EPSUEU Commissioners Deny 9.8 Million Workers Legal Minimum Standards on Information Rights
  12. ACCAAppropriate Risk Management is Crucial for Effective Strategic Leadership

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUWill the Circular Economy be an Economy With no Workers?
  2. European Jewish CongressThe 2018 European Medal of Tolerance Goes to Prince Albert II of Monaco
  3. FiscalNoteGlobal Policy Trends: What to Watch in 2018
  4. Human Rights and Democracy NetworkPromoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Next Eu Multiannual Financial Framework
  5. Mission of China to the EUDigital Cooperation a Priority for China-EU Relations
  6. ECTACompetition must prevail in the quest for telecoms investment
  7. European Friends of ArmeniaTaking Stock of 30 Years of EU Policy on the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: How Can the EU Contribute to Peace?
  8. ILGA EuropeCongratulations Finland!
  9. UNICEFCyclone Season Looms Over 720,000 Rohingya Children in Myanmar & Bangladesh
  10. European Gaming & Betting AssociationEU Court: EU Commission Correct to Issue Guidelines for Online Gambling Services
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina Hopes for More Exchanges With Nordic, Baltic Countries
  12. Macedonian Human Rights MovementCondemns Facebook for Actively Promoting Anti-Macedonian Racism