For German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, it was important for the European Union to act strongly. What Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has done “is so unacceptable” that the EU “cannot be satisfied with only small sanctions measures,” Maas said at a meeting with his EU counterparts. He said that if Lukashenko did not bow down, for example, by releasing more than 400 political prisoners – he would be threatened with “the start of a long and long spiral of sanctions.”
The EU has shown firm determination in the wake of Lukashenko’s move to intercept a Ryanair plane last Sunday and arrest Roman Protasevich, the Belarusian journalist on board. This week, EU leaders moved at an unusual pace to begin the process of imposing sanctions on the regime.
But now the EU has to back its words with action, and that could be tricky. Eighty-eight people and seven organizations have already been included in the list of EU sanctions on Belarus, including Lukashenko himself. According to diplomats, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, has long been working on a fourth list of sanctions, which could be agreed by EU foreign ministers on 21 June.
But even so, Brussels officials acknowledge, Lukashenko is unlikely to impress. And this is motivating EU member states to now discuss even more drastic sanctions. Maas said that “economic structure and payment transactions also need to be targeted” in Belarus. Borrell also spoke of measures against entire sectors of the economy, which would represent a significant escalation of existing sanctions. It would replace precision strikes with more blanket measurements.
It is not yet clear which economic sectors could be included. Petroleum products would be an option: Germany alone bought all Belarusian crude exports in 2019 worth almost 600 million euros. Belarus is also one of the world’s largest producers of potassium fertilizers. “It would hurt Lukashenko if we could do something here,” says Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
But sanctions can also cause economic damage to EU companies. Brussels also wants to avoid sanctions that directly affect the Belarusian population.
This is also one reason why EU funding continues to flow to Belarus. The European Commission says it provided aid of 34 million euros in 2019 and about 37 million in 2020, the year of Lukashenko’s election fraud. Part of the funding was stopped after the August elections, but not those funds that “directly benefit the Belarusian population or are in the EU’s offensive interest” in terms of civil society or independent media, a spokeswoman for the European Commission.
Brussels diplomats cite another argument against general sanctions: concern over Russia’s growing influence.
More than 40 percent of Belarusian exports already go to the country and Minsk gets 57 percent of its total exports from Vladimir Putin’s empire. EU sanctions could exacerbate this dependency. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has even warned of the possible annexation of Belarus. “It’s Crimea, on a larger scale.”
But Sergey Lagodinsky says this is no excuse. “Lukashenko has long been in Putin’s arms,” said Lagodinsky, a German member of the European Parliament’s Green Party. “The EU negotiated with Lukashenko as dictator, but can no longer do so with Lukashenko as a terrorist,” he says. In addition to stopping imports of potassium fertilizers, he says, the EU should consider withdrawing Belarus from the international payment system SWIFT.
Will these measures be taken? So far, EU states are following the hard line agreed at the summit. “But no one will swear anything until concrete proposals for sanctions are put forward,” says one diplomat.