Friday

5th Mar 2021

Opinion

The beginning of the end for Europe's last dictator

  • Ever since 1994, president Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist (Photo: Twitter)

Since 1989, developments in most of Europe have been characterised by democratisation, freedom and prosperity. Still, one clear exception exists. Ever since 1994, president Aleksandr Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist.

From August, and yet another illegitimate election, widespread democratic protests have been going on, continuing now into the new year.

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In one way or another, the public uprising, strength and determination by the Belarusian people hopefully marks the beginning of the end for Europe's last dictator.

The European Union has a moral obligation to keep acting in support of the democratic movement in Belarus.

So far, the Union's response has been fairly well balanced, albeit with signs of indecisiveness and lack of speed. After a slow start, which highlights the need to re-initiate the discussion on how to reform the decision-making process in EU foreign affairs, the decision to implement sanctions finally came through in the Council.

From the European Parliament's side, the spotlight has, on numerous occasions, focused on the opposition's struggle and need of support.

As a Swede and chairman of the European Parliament's development committee, I am also pleased that Sweden is one of the EU countries that has withdrawn aid for several projects in the country with links to the regime.

However, the different approach among member states yet again highlights the need for a more coherent EU policy response on these matters.

The Union is the world's largest aid donor and thus has great opportunities to use the development policy as a means of putting pressure on regimes worldwide. Furthermore, while supporting a democratic regime change in Belarus, the EU also needs to start preparing for what might happen when Lukashenko is no longer in power.

I hope that the change of power will take place in a peaceful manner, but still, there is much at stake.

Therefore, it is important that the EU does not act naively. The Union should hope for the best and plan for the worst.

Remembering the Arab Spring, the EU must be prepared to act, if developments in Belarus take unexpected turns in the wrong direction.

For example, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will refrain from interfering during a change of power in Belarus.

Minsk and Moscow

It is well known that Vladimir Putin has for a long time been deeply dissatisfied with Lukashenko. I consider it highly unlikely, though, that Putin will accept a democratic revolution in a neighbouring country.

What is more likely is that Moscow will go quite far in its efforts to guarantee a regime in Minsk that is loyal to Russia. That has happened before and may very well happen again.

Similar to the Russian warfare in eastern Ukraine, a worst-case scenario would be 'little green men' appearing on the streets of Minsk, seizing control of key state functions.

However, with the new American administration now in place, the expectations from the international community is that the United States will once again assume its responsibilities for freedom and democracy in the world.

This means, in a best-case scenario, that president Joe Biden will choose to set an early example by shielding the democratic opposition in Belarus from Russian interference and aggression.

In any future scenario, the EU will probably not play a key role when it comes to military security policy in Belarus. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The US and Nato military strengths can act as a deterrent to Russia, while the EU is using its economic muscle to ensure that the situation develops in the right direction.

Potentially, one approach could be for the EU to deal with a free Belarus in the same way that West Germany dealt with the GDR during the reunification; namely, investing significant political and economic resources to help get a free Belarus back on its feet.

We know that legitimate institutions, transparency, good governance, and a functioning economy are necessary for a successful transition to democracy. The EU certainly has both the financial means and the instruments necessary to support such efforts.

Peaceful and astonishingly brave democratic protesters are still facing violence and abuse in the streets of Minsk. Lukashenko still clings to power, despite the opposition's tireless efforts.

While August 2020 will go down in history as the beginning of the end for Lukashenko's regime, there is much work to be done before Europe's last dictator falls.

Author bio

Tomas Tobé is a Swedish MEP from the Moderate Party, sitting with the European People's Party, and chair of the European Parliament's development committee.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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