Changing the Tune on Western Sanctions Against Belarus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 124

(Source: TASS)

A new, seventh package of European sanctions is about to be imposed on Belarus. And by the end of the week, its full details will be published. What is known at this point is that the package will include restrictions on the supply of military equipment, including aircraft parts. Thus, sanctions in these areas will be identical to those applied against Russia to prevent the transit of spare parts through Belarus. It was also noted that “new sanctions against Belarus are seen as a steppingstone to broader and global sanctions against it” (Smartpress, July 26). Contradictory rumors abound as to whether the current ban on Belarusian potash exports via non-Russian Baltic seaports will stand. While some reports suggest that European policymakers have not agreed on this issue (TASS, July 26), others claim, with reference to the usually well-informed journalist Ricard Jozwiak, that the potash ban will remain, though the issue will again be on the European Union’s agenda in September 2023 due to the Global South’s demand for potash (, July 26).

However, regardless of which version will ring true—as of writing, the latter one seems more probable—Belarusian opposition-minded pundits are changing their tune on sanctions. That Western sanctions are counterproductive previously emanated from just one source, former Belarusian Chargé D’Affaires in Switzerland Pavel Matsukevich. But now this message has become more mainstream for opposition commentators. “Sanctions have not induced [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka to open the doors of prisons,” writes Alexander Klaskovsky, the doyen of Belarusian opposition journalism. Klaskovsky also underscores that the opposition’s offices-in-exile, like the provisional cabinet headed by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, “do not influence the processes inside the country”; that they cannot topple the regime as their area of operations does not extend beyond Twitter; and that most people in Belarus have lost interest in those offices. And yet, Pavel Latushko, Tikhanovskaya’s deputy, has doubled down on demands for more Western sanctions (, July 27). The editors from used one sentence from Klaskovsky’s article as a pullout quote, which reads: “It is obvious that today the West cannot knock out Lukashenka,” a putative admission of a regime change objective never actually enunciated by Western politicians.

During a three-party conversation in a new podcast format for Belarusians at home and abroad, Artyom Shraibman, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece, shared his estimate (YouTube, July 23) that 87 percent or so of Belarusians with European aspirations residing in Belarus are adamantly opposed to sanctions, especially those that almost brought personal travel to a halt. However, Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet cannot possibly voice support for lifting sanctions, as it has been “in the groove” of having steadily demanded the opposite. The Carnegie scholar observes growing difficulties for the members of Tikhanovskaya’s cabinet in staying relevant—a point also made by Klaskovsky.

During a later Q&A podcast, Shraibman addressed the question, “Why is it that in the wake of the 2020 events, sanctions were imposed on Belarus that cannot in any way impact the regime but can merely worsen the situation of ordinary residents of the country?” He answered by arguing that changing Lukashenka’s behavior was not the main motive behind sanctions. Rather, Western politicians wanted to show their own electorate that they are critical of the repressive Belarusian regime and that diverting civilian aircraft and organizing a migration crisis on Western borders are punishable offenses (YouTube, July 27).

It is unclear what part of Shraibman’s audience resides in Belarus itself—the podcast’s slogan is “share with friends if this does not pose danger for you”—but it does not seem likely that the domestic segment of the audience appreciated this response. It is like telling the hungry that they will not receive assistance because the aid’s primary responsibility is to the well-fed. A similar reaction may be hypothesized regarding yet another response—namely, that a deal on potash in exchange for freeing political prisoners cannot be offered to Lukashenka in view of reputational damage that any Western policymaker, “except, possibly, Hungarians,” would sustain once they make that offer.

In the meantime, two newsworthy occurrences delivered new information about the degree of Belarus’s current isolation from Europe. First, Lukashenka complained to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Wagnerites staying in Belarus are bugging him with their desire “to go on excursion to Warsaw and Rzeszow,” where an airfield is located at which American military equipment in transit to Ukraine lands (RBC, July 23).

Poland’s response was twofold. On the one hand, Lukashenka’s words were described as a “classic and rather vulgar element of psychological warfare” that defies serious attitude (WPolityce, July 24). And on the other, the threat of Belarus’s total isolation from the West was floated, should there be any border provocations from the Belarusian side (, June 27).

On the face of it, the second occurrence is of an entirely different nature. In May and June 2023, Chatham House conducted an online survey in Belarus. The sample included 683 urban respondents who ranged from ages 18 to 35. The survey’s goal was to determine the preferred sources of information used by this group (Chatham House, July 26). Several findings are noteworthy. About half of respondents could not name any specific internet blogger or television host that they prefer. But among those who could, Russian figures are dominant, including both national-patriotic (Vladimir Solovyov) and liberal (Maxim Kats) influencers. Just over 40 percent of the group surveyed believe that Belarus should remain a member of the Russia-centered Collective Security Treaty Organization, while 47 percent are in favor of neutrality and 12 percent are for joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

It appears that the degree of Belarus’s isolation from the West, which has grown significantly since 2020, is a function of two variables: the aggressive posture of Belarus’s close ally, Russia, and Minsk’s complicity and the Western response to both. As the latter shows a tendency to refrain from differentiating between Russia and Belarus, a collateral damage of sorts comes about as a result. And one can only hope that the attitudes of ordinary Belarusians will not be damaged beyond repair.