With reference to Nasha Niva, the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty reports that Deutsche Bank, the main correspondent bank of Belarusian state-owned financial institutions, has closed its correspondent accounts in euros. Evidence of this could be seen by looking at the list of respective accounts of Belagroprombank. Judging by this list, currency transactions are now only available through the Russian TKB Bank; whereas previously, multiple European banks could handle such transactions. Put simply, this change means that European banks are likely to close all transfers in euros for Belarus. In some cases, they may still be possible, but the cost of those transactions will increase. Twenty-four banks currently operate in Belarus, four of which are state-owned. In 2018, 50 percent of all domestic financial assets belonged to the four largest state-owned banks: Belarusbank, Belagroprombank, Dobrabyt Bank and Belinvestbank. These large, government-controlled financial enterprises will survive, economist Lev Lvovsky assured. But smaller banks may disappear. The United States’ sanctions on Belarusian banks may make holding dollar accounts effectively impossible, as almost all correspondent banks that transfer dollars and euros are somehow tied to US jurisdiction. This will pose problems if a person receives money in foreign currency on a bank card, owns a company that does business in other countries, or receives remittances from abroad, Lvovsky said (Svaboda.org, September 15). Unquestionably, Western sanctions are having a deleterious effect on the Belarusian economy. But what can they actually achieve?
It is no accident that the discussion initiated by Zianon Pazniak, who posited that sanctions damage Belarusian statehood but do nothing to the regime, is not going away. By now, all pundit heavyweights of the Belarusian opposition have opined about the case made by Pazniak, who also appealed to the Western powers to negotiate the release of political prisoners with his sworn enemy, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see EDM, September 8, 15).
The independent analyst Artyom Shraibman believes that Paznyak’s view on the issue of sanctions is one-sided. Yes, sanctions do not have an indisputable success story. They are double-edged swords, like chemotherapy against cancer. But oftentimes, doctors have no other options. The alternative to sanctions is to do nothing. But Western politicians, Shraibman argued in a recent interview, “do not live in the world of realpolitik, fashionable in post-Soviet countries.” These politicians are accountable to voters and the media, which put pressure on them to react. Yet, at the same time, Shraibman is convinced that the Kremlin has intensified real institutional mechanisms to bind Belarus to Russia once Lukashenka is gone. This is happening both in the military and logistics (reorientation of trade routes) spheres. Thus, even if Lukashenka is replaced, Belarusian freedom of maneuver will be lower than now; whereas all those 28 integration roadmaps signed by the presidents of Russia and Belarus amount to a smokescreen (Svaboda.org, September 16).
Aside from an unusually heavy dose of idealism, Shraibman’s reasoning discounts the degree to which the lessening of that Belarusian freedom of maneuver is a direct outcome of Western sanctions. Consequently, their net effect does not appear to be on the side of common sense. Put differently, moral indignation and virtue signaling can be so costly that the baby risks being thrown out with the bathwater.
Yury Drakakhrust of Radio Liberty echoes Shraibman when he disputes the notion that sanctions are entrusted with achieving regime change. Rather, he says, sanctions are a means of punishment (Svaboda.org, September 13). In his turn, Zmitser Pankavets, the deputy editor of Nasha Niva, observes that the release of political prisoners is the main task today, and this is what Europe can talk about with Lukashenka, so Paznyak was right. In the words of Pankavets, part of the opposition lives in a fictional world and thinks that overthrowing the regime in the near future is possible. One has to be realistic and solve problems that are feasible now. As a tool for the release of political prisoners, sanctions may be effective. But as a tool for overthrowing the regime, such economic/financial restrictions are ineffective (Svaboda.org, September 6). Whereas, in his discussion with the former basketball player from the Belarusian national team Yekaterina Snytina, Aliaksandr Lukashuk of Euroradio made the point that if sanctions impoverish people, they are unlikely to demand democracy; rather, they will break shop windows (Euroradio, September 16).
Why has discussion over Paznyak’s appeal been this heated and lasted so long? The most probable reason is that sanctions are so patently counterproductive they infuse many, if not most, Western-friendly Belarusians with a sense of awkwardness. It becomes the elephant in the room, so people are torn between their political preferences in general and what they actually feel in this case.
Other factors further exacerbate this awkwardness. For example, natural gas prices in Europe are now five times what they were in 2019 and have already surpassed $800 per 1,000 cubic meters (TASS, September 14), whereas Belarus is going to pay $128.50 for Russian gas in 2022—that is, the same price as now. Also, in the opinion of the military expert Alexander Alesin, Russian-Belarusian military integration has significantly outperformed economic integration (Gazeta.by, September 14). The exodus of high-tech firms from Belarus, which was profusely warned about since August 2020, has not materialized. In fact, many new firms have registered with the Minsk-based High-Tech Park (HTP), and revenues to the Belarusian budget from this complex in the first half of 2021 are 86 percent higher than during the same period in 2020 (Dev.by, August 4). Arkady Dobkin, the CEO of Epam, one of the leading HTP resident companies, has pledged that his firm is planning to stay in Belarus (Dev.by, August 27). Finally, Lukashenka has just expanded the list of Belarusian airports where foreigners can land without a Belarusian visa (Belsat.eu, September 15). The United States has notably been excluded from the list of countries whose nationals can travel to Belarus visa free (TASS, September 16).
While these and other developments in no way undermine the value judgments expressed about Lukashenka’s “regime” in the West and in Belarus itself, Western foreign policy makers will need to figure out a better way to marry their moral indignation with hard strategic considerations.