EU fails with Belarus sanctions

You cannot solve 2021 problems by using 1950s tools

Photo: EPA Alexander Lukashenko

The European Union vowed to launch a new round of sanctions against Belarus linked to the forced landing of Ryanair flight FR4978, which was followed by the arrest of an opposition journalist who was on board of the carrier. The message is simple - no one is allowed to simply hijack an airplane because there could be a political opponent travelling or for another personal reason. The lesson was supposed to be taught to Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

But is the punitive measure really working? The simple answer is - “NO” and the longer version is - “Absolutely NOT”.

The EU desperately needs to update its sanctions mechanism as you cannot limit and punish someone in 2021 by using methods from the 1950s. The Union updated the long list of entry bans for Belarus officials close to the ruling regime. Such a nice initiative, and it would have been an excellent measure. But with modern travelling through transport hubs such ban makes absolutely no sense. The airports and regulations are just too many and impossible to cover. In the Cold War era, when the world was basically divided in two, such a ban made sense, but in 2021 - I do not think so. Whoever wants to travel and has the financial resources could easily do so. The other sanction tool that the EU is rolling against Lukashenko is linked to the Belarusian economy and more specifically - its exports. The EU leaders also called for the adoption of “targeted economic sanctions”. So far, so good. Belarus has a 25% share of the EU market for potash, which is essential for agriculture. Putting a halt on that sector seems logical. Or it might have been logical in the mid-20th century. Now Belarus has solved in advance the funding part of its operations as the country is under sanctions from the West almost ever since it broke from the Soviet Union in 1991. As far as the potash trading and other operations, the answer came even before the sanctions were imposed - Russian companies have signalled they had already sealed contracts to take over. At the end of the day one could ask: is Alexander Lukashenko hurt and is his regime shaken? There is again a simple negative answer to that. On the contrary - he tightened his grip on the country, imposing new restrictions, all linked to freedom of speech and travelling.

Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won a presidential election last year with 80.23% of the votes, according to election officials. However, the result has been contested by opposition leaders and the EU has said the vote was “neither free nor fair”. Lukashenko has denied these allegations. He easily dismissed the EU rush for sanctions and rushed to meet his old friend Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he vowed swift counter measures. “We'll substitute Europe, which is growing mercilessly old, for rapidly growing Asia,” he said.

Nearly half of all goods Belarus produces go to Russia, versus about 24% going to the EU. And an arrangement with Russia that allows Belarus to import Russian crude oil, refine and resell it, has accounted for a considerable portion of its gross domestic product. The EU measures will need to name specific sectors and be clearly defined so as to withstand potential legal proceedings and win the backing of all Member States. Forging unanimity between EU governments has proved tricky lately, with several countries keen to avoid hurting their economies or denting controversial political alliances.

The EU has gained support from the US in relation to the sanctions. Economic sanctions - often posited as the best alternative to military force and a means of conveying liberal values - have become a favoured tool in Washington and among many Western policymakers. They can consist of blanket prohibitions on trade with a country or restrictions on transactions with specific foreign entities or individuals. Since 9/11, international policymakers have generally favoured the targeted approach. The bottom line is that at this point the EU is using Belarus for political PR purposes only, as real policymaking in 2021 is possible only with 2021 tools, and a reform in the Union is urgent and awfully late. And while I was writing this story Russian police stormed a plane at the Moscow airport. There was an opposition speaker on board. Sanctions, anyone?

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