Belarus’s Economic Plight Opens Opportunity to Pressure Minsk For Release of Political Prisoners

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 84

(Source: Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya’s X,

Executive Summary:

  • Western efforts to trigger the release of at least 1,559 political prisoners in Belarus, who are forced to endure inhumane conditions and extreme repressions, have flagged since 2020.
  • Belarus’s economic needs in the current geopolitical environment are opening windows to pressure Minsk to release more political prisoners, lest its position as a transit hub for goods from China and elsewhere be disrupted.
  • The lack of political will in the European Union and the United States remains a stumbling block, but capitalizing on Belarus’s precarious position with transit pressures would likely produce results.

On May 21, numerous actions and various events throughout the world were dedicated to the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners of Belarus (Viasna, May 23). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) estimates that up to 300,000 people have been forced to leave Belarus after the 2020 presidential election due to a concerted campaign of violence and repression (OHCHR, March 15). As of June 3, there are at least 1,559 political prisoners in Belarus according to and 1,393 according to the Belarusian human rights center Viasna (; Viasna, accessed June 3). Among those detained are Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, Charlemagne Prize laureate Maria Kolesnikova, democratic trade union leader Aliaksandr Yaroshuk, and 2020 presidential candidates Viktor Babariko and Sergei Tikhanovsky. Others estimate that there could be as many as 5,000 since many are afraid to recognize themselves as political prisoners due to accompanying repressions within the Belarusian prison system. Political prisoners in Belarus are completely isolated, cannot hold meetings, and are often placed in solitary, narrow cells. Before 2020, the West had seen some success in negotiating the release of political prisoners. The United States and others have since sanctioned Minsk for the repressive crackdown on the postelection protestors (, January 27, 2022). In the current geopolitical environment, the Belarusian economy is heavily dependent on exports and the ability to serve as a hub for east-west trade, opening opportunities to pressure Minsk on political prisoners. Western policies that threaten to compromise that position would likely produce results.

In December 2023, at the Minsk Forum XXI in Berlin, a group of experts presented various approaches to resolving the problem. One proposal called for the creation of an international ad hoc group and the use of an individual approach to the release of each political prisoner through both diplomatic and “soft power” pressure measures (German-Belarusian Society, January 15). Diplomatic efforts by various countries to free political prisoners in Belarus have yielded mixed results, however. In previous years, political prisoners (Andrei Sannikov, Mikola Statkevich, and others) were often released through strong pressure or bargaining (, April 15, 2012; Our opinion, September 15, 2015). Since 2020, and especially since Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the West has not collectively regarded the situation with political prisoners in Belarus as a humanitarian catastrophe. While many statements express concern and call for the immediate release of individuals, no group is tasked with systematically addressing the issue.

The West’s sanctions policy against Belarus has had a limited impact in pressuring Minsk to release political prisoners. Belarusian citizens, both inside the country and abroad, were the primary victims, not the Lukashenka regime (see EDM, August 2, 9, 2023). Official Minsk can almost always count on the Kremlin’s financial support to maintain its authoritarian system (see EDM, February 7). Thus, resolving the political crisis in Belarus likely requires an entirely different approach.

Belarusian politicians and activists have been advocating for over a year that the European Union issue a collective ultimatum to Lukashenka demanding the release of political prisoners (, September 14, 2023; Gazeta Wyborcza, April 16). The ultimatum implies the suspension of cargo transit to and from the European Union, including transit from Russia and China, if Minsk does not stop repressions against the opposition and does not release political prisoners. Such an instrument of pressure might also end the migration crisis that has developed on the Belarusian-Polish border, as well as precipitate the withdrawal of Russian tactical nuclear weapons from Belarusian territory (see EDM, May 9). On May 23, more than 1,500 people, including 40 Nobel Prize and Charlemagne Prize winners, signed an open appeal to EU leaders and Poland to take exhaustive measures for the release of political prisoners in Belarus (, February 7;, March 20).

Political activists who have been staging “ultimatum” actions in Warsaw and other cities for several months plan to organize an event to block cargo traffic between Belarus and the European Union in the near future (, May 23). The organizers of such actions say they are justified by international law, including the International Labor Organization’s resolution on June 12, 2023, that urged sanctions against Lukashenka’s regime for labor rights violations (International Labour Organization, June 12, 2023). Such sanctions may include taking efforts to block exports that would constitute a temporary economic blockade for violating workers’ rights. Limiting the effectiveness of Belarusian transit networks, especially by rail and road, would likely put pressure on Minsk to resolve the situation quickly so as not to disrupt goods from China and elsewhere from transiting through the country. The war next door has amplified Minsk’s reliance on exports and transit revenues (see EDM, August 9, 2022, May 7).

Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has noted the strategic importance of Belarus’s transit potential on several occasions (see EDM, September 14, 2015, June 24, 2017, December 10, 2019). In 2022, China and Belarus elevated relations to the level of an “all-weather and strategic partnership.” Xi has given particular attention to the implementation of container train projects to expand the capacity and infrastructure network for east-west trade (, September 15, 2022). About 4 percent of Chinese goods destined for Europe travel by rail through Belarus, as certain goods cannot be transported by sea or air, and this has grown in recent years (Interfax, June 29, 2023;, July 31, 2023). Minsk has enjoyed the added economic benefits coming from increased transit cooperation with Beijing. Compromising this position could put the right amount of pressure on Lukashenka to release political prisoners

Russia’s war against Ukraine and the unstable situation in the Red Sea have increased demand for rail routes from China through Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus to Europe. In the first quarter of 2024, Chinese transit through Russia grew by 44 percent, reaching 90,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) (see EDM, March 14). According to the China-EU container transit operator United Transport and Logistics Company—Eurasian Railway Alliance, in 2023, 58,500 TEU were transported along the Chinese-Belarusian route, a 323-percent increase (Kommersant, April 4).

Policies that threaten Belarus’s position as a transit hub could escalate tensions between the Lukashenka regime and China, as Beijing is increasingly reliant on Belarus for exports to the European Union (see EDM, March 16, 2023, March 14). Blockages of cargo deliveries at the EU border via rail and road would likely serve to paralyze transit and disrupt Belarus’s entire railway system. Lukashenka is unlikely to risk a confrontation with Beijing and jeopardize Belarus’s transit routes. Thus, such pressure could compel Minsk to release more political prisoners, provided that the measure is tied directly to the economic pressures. The cost of Lukashenka’s actions far exceeds the expenses incurred by the West in countering the hybrid attacks from his regime, but capitalizing on Belarus’s precarious position with transit pressures would likely produce results.