At least a partial lifting of the sanctions is not unrealistic
- We have to ask why now? Could it be that with heightened western-Russian tension Brussels is suddenly sensitive about the fact that sanctions help push Belarus into Moscow's camp
This article originally appeared at Business New Europe
The EU is considering lifting sanctions on Belarus, but is awaiting the outcome of the presidential election on October 11 before making a final decision on whether and how to go about this. The timing of the coming polls in Belarus is convenient for all parties as the bloc’s sanctions are up for renewal on October 31, though experts see only a partial lifting of the sanctions as the most likely decision.
Belarus played a crucial role in facilitating the Minsk I and Minsk II ceasefire agreements between Russia and its separatist proxies in Ukraine, Kyiv and the Western powers over the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
President Alexander Lukashenko’s decision to release six political prisoners on August 22 was also seen as a sign of progress in Western capitals, as was his agreement this summer to have election observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitor the presidential election.
Belarus has sought a rapprochement with the EU in the wake of the crisis in Ukraine. The country is worried about its national security after having seen Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Minsk is also believed to seek financial support for its ailing economy; some analysts say the Belarusian government is hoping for a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Yet a major obstacle to normalisation of its relations with the West is Belarus’ status as an authoritarian country, and the sanctions were designed to induce Minsk to free political prisoners and hold free elections. The US-based watchdog Freedom House classifies Belarus as “Not Free” in its “2015 Freedom in the World” ranking.
Sending ‘positive signals’
Ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers of the 28 member states in Luxembourg on September 4-5 the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for a “free and forward-looking discussion on… our support for our friends in the east, starting obviously from Ukraine, but also Belarus,” adding that, “developments in Belarus are encouraging with the release of prisoners”.
Maria Davydchuk, an analyst at the German foreign affairs think-tank DGAP in Berlin, says the very fact that sanctions were put on the table at this meeting is “sending a signal to the political leadership in Belarus that the EU considers this release as a positive move”.
The six released prisoners – Mikalai Statkevich, Ihar Alinevich, Yuri Rubtsou, Mikalai Dziadok, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yauhen Vaskovich – received a presidential pardon. Mikalai Statkevich was a presidential candidate in the last election in 2010, and has been in jail since the subsequent crackdown by the Lukashenko regime following protests over the result of that disputed election.
The EU’s sanctions on Belarus involve an arms embargo, a ban on exports of “equipment for internal repression”, the prohibition to provide a certain number of services to Belarus, a travel ban against 232 persons considered “responsible for serious violations of human rights or the repression of civil society and democratic opposition, or whose activities otherwise seriously undermine democracy or the rule of law in Belarus, or any person associated with them”.
The measures also target “natural persons benefiting from or supporting the [Lukashenko] regime”. Asset freezes are in place against 25 companies considered close to the regime. President Lukashenko himself is on the sanctions list.
Decisions on sanctions, which are valid for one year, require unanimity by the 28 EU member states. The EU has not failed to reach consensus on renewing Belarus sanctions so far, though there are differences between member states on the severity of sanctions to impose, with Baltic countries and Slovenia traditionally more lenient towards Minsk.
Germany’s stance is considered pivotal. Gernot Erler, coordinator for Intersocietal Cooperation with Russia, Central Asia and the Eastern Partnership Countries in Germany’s foreign ministry, was in Belarus on September 2-5. Erler said: “The release of political prisoners is a positive signal… We want to intensify our dialogue. Of central importance are – and will be – the implementation of free and fair presidential elections in October.”
The EU has sanctioned Belarus on and off since 1996. Suspended in 1999, sanctions were reintroduced in 2006, suspended again for a time in 2008 in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war, and reintroduced in 2010 after the regime cracked down on marchers protesting electoral fraud in 2010.
Partial sanctions lifting in sight
The EU is not likely to remove all sanctions in one go. Scenarios mulled by experts include: a nominal one-year extension, accompanied by a temporary, renewable, six-month suspension as in 2008, or the ‘delisting’ of a selected number of government officials or companies, including President Lukashenko himself.
Few observers believe the regime is intent on fully opening up the country. Andrei Yeliseyeu an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank operating out of neighbouring Lithuania, said about the coming elections:
“I am certain that there will be numerous violations of international standards… We can already see that the media representation of the candidates is not equal”. Yeliseyeu also points to a common practice of pushing voters, mostly employees of state enterprises, into voting a few days ahead of the official poll: “it is an easy way to [commit] fraud”.
The DGAP’s Davydchyk expects a relatively smooth election. Given the current geopolitical situation, she says that for the majority of the population, “security is seen as a more serious issue than potential political change”. As such, she doesn't predict a repeat of the protests after the last election in 2010.