The EU Has to Come Down Hard on Belarus — and Fast

European Union leaders are often mocked for their meaningless expressions of concern when confronted with the world’s cruelest regimes. This time has been different. After Belarusian authorities forced down a commercial aircraft flying between two European cities on Sunday, using an apparent bomb threat to extract a dissident journalist, there was outrage. Within little more than a day, the EU had advised its own airlines to circumvent the country, prepared to bar Belarus’s flag carrier and threatened tougher punishments.

This was all laudable and necessary. The recklessness of a state-backed hijack demanded an extraordinary response. Now the 27 member states — the same ones that have been dithering over other sanctions since earlier this year — need to make good on their threats, and do so fast. 

Events moved swiftly this week because President Alexander Lukashenko had the misfortune to time his piratical gambit just before an already scheduled summit of EU leaders. But fury fades with time. Objections crop up and action gets watered down. There’s a risk that actions against Russia, which supports the Belarusian leader, get unhelpfully tangled up in this too. 

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, shot down in July 2014 over eastern Ukraine territory held by pro-Russian rebels, had a similar rallying effect in the West. Substantial sanctions against Moscow followed weeks later but urgency and unity soon ebbed.

Today there is even less time to lose. The EU wants to impose meaningful pain on a Stalinist system working with impunity in the heart of Europe — but it also needs to press for the release of Raman Pratasevich, the 26-year-old former editor in chief of popular opposition Telegram channel Nexta, as well as for the freedom of more than 400 other political prisoners languishing in Belarusian jails. 

The outrageousness of the entire episode — a plane plucked out of the sky on false pretenses — is still hard to fathom, even for an isolated regime clinging to power after a disputed election and with a track record of wild conspiracy theories. It’s so abhorrent, in fact, that Palestinian militant group Hamas, on whom Belarus has blamed the bomb threat, denied its involvement, accusing Minsk of sullying its name.

Since then, there have been chilling taped confessions from Pratasevich and his girlfriend, while an unrepentant Lukashenko accused opponents of trying to “suffocate” Belarus. June 21, the date the EU’s foreign ministers are expected to adopt extra sanctions, may be too distant.

When it comes to the bloc’s sanctions, speed is not a feature. This is in part a structural challenge: The system requires consensus and needs to ensure measures can last and resist legal challenges. But with political will, it can be done.

First, there needs to be recognition that while air restrictions are isolating and costly for a landlocked state (and for those trying to escape it), they are not a replacement for official penalties, which to date have been limited. Adding key personnel and supporters to that sanctions list is one step, but may take time given clear connections have to be made to the regime’s most flagrant abuses.

Instead, the focus should be on corporations, as Maria Shagina, a sanctions expert at the University of Zurich, pointed out to me. That’s because in Belarus most key entities are owned by the state and so can more easily be proven to enable the Lukashenko regime, not least by providing crucial hard currency. Penalties should be placed on potash heavyweight Belaruskali, petrochemical outfit Belneftekhim and others. The move would leverage the EU’s position as Belarus’s most important trade partner after Russia, representing nearly a fifth of trade in goods in 2019.

Limits on foreign investment into Belarus would hurt too, given that most comes from states other than Russia.

It’s true that squeezing Lukashenko financially will push him further toward Russia, but there is no alternative scenario under which he will be won over by inaction. Plus, the prospect of further dependence on Vladimir Putin is not a palatable one for an autocrat who cherishes his power and sovereignty. Becoming the leader of a Russian province remains an unappealing prospect.

Next, it is vital not to mix action against Russia with moves against Belarus. Yes, Putin’s support has been a lifeline for Lukashenko. But there is no clear evidence Russia was directly involved in Sunday’s shenanigans, and confusion now would not only unite Moscow and Minsk but also make it more likely that EU member states friendlier to the Kremlin will delay punitive measures. Weakening the regime financially already imposes significant costs for Moscow.

French President Emmanuel Macron this week expressed his frustration over the limits of Western influence. That stems from a misunderstanding of how sanctions work. They are not instant, but cumulative, building over time and eventually, in theory, they’ll strain the elites on whom Lukashenko’s regime depends.

Sanctions also do not work alone. In this case, that means the EU must ramp up its support for independent media, civil society inside Belarus and the exiled opposition. Promises of economic support for a more democratic Belarus may also help sway those at the top. And of course there’s room for U.S. action to support all of these European measures.

The key now is maintaining momentum.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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