Debating Sanctions Against Belarus: How to Fix the Broken Record?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 72

Belarussian President Lukashenka via the Office of the President of Belarus

At a recent event organized by the Belarusian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (BSRL), the topic—“Can the West Exert Influence on Lukashenka?”—was debated between two analysts. Ryhor Astapenia, one of the debaters, earlier, had issued his critical account of Western policies vis-à-vis Belarus, in which he suggested the West should not avoid talking directly to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (Svaboda, April 5; see EDM, April 12). Arkady Moshes and Ryhor Nizhnikov of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs responded with their own take on the issue, with an article titled “Re-Engaging With Lukashenka Is Morally and Politically Wrong. It Must Be Avoided” (Euronews, April 6). As a result, BSRL set up a face-to-face between Astapenia and Moshes (Svaboda, April 24).

Astapenia’s main arguments were as follows. Sectoral sanctions only strengthen Lukashenka and are extremely unpopular in Belarusian society; besides, there are always means to circumvent sanctions. The stringency of sanctions against Belarus is on par with punitive measures against Iran, North Korea and Syria. Yet, they have not been successful with respect to those countries, nor are they likely to succeed in the case of Belarus. Plenty of political regimes are as authoritarian and repressive as Lukashenka’s, including the governments of Turkmenistan and Egypt; yet, the West does not sanction them. Lukashenka’s dependency on Moscow is significant but not absolute. If Lukashenka asks Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw all Russian troops from Belarus, it is unlikely that Putin will do so; however, if Lukashenka decides to free all or some political prisoners, Putin will not stand in the way. The Belarusian president’s recent appeal for a truce infuriated many influential Russians. His approach to the war in Ukraine is more nuanced than Putin’s. Given all that, it is worth negotiating with Lukashenka (Svaboda, April 24).

Moshes’ rebuttal of these points boils down to one major argument—namely, if Lukashenka is not setting political prisoners free, it is not due to futility of sanctions; rather, it is a result of their weakness and inconsistency. The West needs to hit harder. For example, the fact that the Belarusian national soccer team is still allowed to compete internationally is an outrage, according to Moshes. Yet, the effects of those sanctions that are imposed do not set in overnight, and one ought to wait two to three years. As for not punishing other authoritarian regimes, this is largely because these countries are not in Europe; and if a neighbor becomes unruly, more action will be taken with them than with an unruly regime some thousands of miles away. In Moshes’ opinion, Lukashenka betrayed the West’s trust and does not deserve another chance. Lukashenka’s dependency on Russia has grown not because of sanctions but because of the Belarusian leader cracking down on peaceful protesters (Svaboda, April 24).

To a seasoned Belarus-watcher, the back-and-forth between Astapenia and Moshes provides a bit of déjà vu, as debates not only structured but even worded the same way have been conducted before, especially following the 2010 crackdown on post-election rallies in Minsk (see EDM, April 12). Overall, Western sanctions imposed on Belarus have been active with some interruptions since 1997. However, initially, they were only travel sanctions imposed under the assumption that travel to Europe was so critical for Belarusian bureaucrats that depriving them of this necessity would pressure them to change their course. Economic sanctions soon followed in 2006 (RIA Novosti, February 15, 2016).

Debates over sanctions have been identical not only in terms of the reasoning employed but also in terms of the reasoning excluded. For example, the argument could be used that the moral authority of the punishers is not always as high as they think it is, whereas the moral authority of those punished is not always as low as expected. Given the current state of affairs in various Western countries, this argument should at least be considered. Incidentally, Belarus’s major government newspaper published a report titled, “Well-Known Journalists Were Targeted by ‘Democracy,’” devoted to censorship and the ouster of some popular journalists in the United States. The article even accused the government of resorting to “democratic totalitarianism” (, April 27). While the report itself may not persuade a well-informed reader, politicized perceptions often affect popular understanding of otherwise verifiable facts. In that sense, articles of this nature shatter legitimacy without which sanctions lose their verve.

This line of reasoning is furthered by the central argument that, whereas sanctions affect the economy, “economic problems,” as former Belarusian diplomat Pavel Matsukevich put it, “have never ever cornered a single dictator” (Svaboda, April 25). Similar to Moshes, Matsukevich resorts to allegories. You cannot, he says, “treat headaches by a medication intended for diarrhea.” In other words, while the Belarusian economy and people suffer, Lukashenka is strengthened. Thus, Western economic sanctions are counterproductive, as they only make matters worse. Sanctions in the Belarusian case, explains Matsukevich, cannot work simply because it is impossible to insulate the Belarusian regime completely. They are imposed on emotional grounds but are indefensible in terms of their practicality.

Matsukevich’s remark about the emotional underpinnings of the West’s policies on Belarus may be accurate, as Western foreign policymakers and diplomats rarely do their homework on Belarus. In that regard, a remark by Artyom Shraibman, one of Belarus’s most influential analysts, now in exile, deserves attention. Recently, an interviewer posed the question: “Often the work of an analyst is associated with dispelling myths. How difficult is that?” To which, Shraibman responded, “I do that on a regular basis. The point is that diplomats are constantly rotated. During the time that I work with them as clients, the personnel of some embassies are renewed 90 percent. … People with superficial or harsh attitudes toward Belarus often occupy vacant positions. Basically, their knowledge about Belarus is drawn from newspapers that repeat the same thing over and over again, like Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe or a country that is completely under Russian occupation” (, April 28).

Whether the West can in fact exert influence over Lukashenka may be related to this situation as equally as to the approach of Western foreign policymaking vis-à-vis Belarus.