Friday

16th Nov 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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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.

US steps in to clean up Cyprus

Cyprus has overlooked undertakings on bank probity made to the EU in the context of the 2013 bailout - but it might prove harder to get the US off its back.

Macron's 'European army': why is everyone talking about it?

Few people commented on one key point in Macron's statement: he did not justify the idea of a European army by the need to intervene in Africa, which would have been France's traditional approach. Instead, he invoked the Russian threat,

EU 'Magnitsky Act' must bear its proper name

Sergei Magnitsky gave his life to fighting corruption. The least we can do is to honour his sacrifice in the name of the legislation that his heroism inspired.

News in Brief

  1. Merkel urged Romania not to move embassy to Jerusalem
  2. Protesters call for Czech leader to step down
  3. Former German chancellor labelled 'enemy' of Ukraine
  4. French lead opposition to Brexit deal on fisheries
  5. Private accounts of Danske Bank employees investigated
  6. UK's May defends Brexit deal to MPs, after ministers resign
  7. Brexit MP calls for 'no confidence' vote on May
  8. Denmark blocks Tanzania aid over homophobic crackdown

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

The power of the parliament to 'appoint' the president of the EU Commission is new, highly-contested - and not universally understood. In fact, even some of the lead candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker are against it.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Latest News

  1. How the EU commission got tunnel vision on self-driving cars
  2. No-confidence calls against May put Brexit deal in doubt
  3. Key points of the Brexit deal (if it ever comes into effect)
  4. Romania heaps scorn on 'revolting' EU criticism
  5. US steps in to clean up Cyprus
  6. 'Decisive progress' on Brexit as British cabinet backs deal
  7. Asylum for Macedonia's ex-PM puts Orban on spot
  8. How the 'EU's Bank' fails to raise the bar on accountability

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  3. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  5. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  9. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  10. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  3. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  4. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Ombudsman Requests More Lending Transparency from European Investment Bank
  6. FIFARecycling at the FIFA World Cup in Russia
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersOECD Report: Gender Equality Boosts GDP Growth in Nordic Region
  8. Centre Maurits Coppieters“Peace and Reconciliation Is a Process That Takes Decades” Dr. Anthony Soares on #Brexit and Northern Ireland
  9. Mission of China to the EUMEPs Positive on China’s New Measures of Opening Up
  10. Macedonian Human Rights MovementOld White Men are Destroying Macedonia by Romanticizing Greece
  11. Counter BalanceControversial EIB-Backed Project Under Fire at European Parliament
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersIncome Inequality Increasing in Nordic Countries

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us