Why the EU must counter Belarus' latest provocation
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.
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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.