On October 7, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution demanding that the European Union (EU) impose the fifth package of economic sanctions on Belarus, including additional sectors, such as metallurgy, woodworking, and chemical. According to the EP, the sanctions should affect “all remaining uncovered state banks and key companies such as Belaruskali [Potassium Company] and Beltelecom [Telecommunications Company]” (Zerkalo, October 7).
On October 5, one of the major Russian dailies, Komsomolskaya Pravda, rumored to be the favorite newspaper of Vladimir Putin, closed its Belarusian branch. It happened after a journalist of that branch, Gennady Mozheiko, a Belarusian citizen, published an article in which a former classmate of Andrei Zetser shared favorable memories of him. Zeltser was an IT company associate who shot KGB officer Dmitry Fedosyuk and was subsequently killed by return fire (EDM, October 5). The article was only available on the newspaper’s website for several minutes, after which the site was blocked and the journalist arrested (DW, October 5).
These two episodes have no common denominator, yet they illustrate two contrasting ways in which two powerful neighbors of Belarus, Russia and the EU, deal with intransigent Minsk. As for Russia, the initial response to Mozheiko’s arrest was explosive. The influential Chief Editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Vladimir Sungorkin, protested as did the RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan and the entire Union of Russian Journalists. Even Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov objected to Minsk’s treatment of “freedom of the press.” And yet. after a few days, Komsomolskaya Pravda quietly closed its Minsk branch, and the scandal has all but disappeared from the forefront of public discussion (Naviny, October 6).
Independent journalist Artyom Shraibman shared his interpretation of this chain of events. Mozheiko’s arrest, he points out, is in line with the apprehension of about 200 people in conjunction with their social network postings expressing favorable attitudes toward Zeltser and denouncing “the regime.” He also observes that the Komsomolskaya Pravda outlet in Belarus, a separate entity from its mother company, was a hybrid publication. On the one hand, it was quite liberal, i.e., not beholden to the Belarusian or Russian authorities. On the other hand, it took advantage of Moscow’s protective umbrella. “Russia would react in a completely different way to such a slap in the face from any of its neighbors with a pro-Western course, be that the Baltic States, Georgia or Ukraine. But allies, especially authoritarian ones, are allowed much more freedom of action,” believes Shraibman. “The Kremlin understands sovereignty as the right to establish order on its territory by methods it considers appropriate, and it expects the same of the allied autocrats. Hence, there is tolerance for their actions, even when they are hostile to Russian interests” (Carnegie.ru, October 8). Shraibman, in other words, discerns a self-restraining and nuanced approach on the part of Moscow, an approach that prioritizes the geopolitical aspect of national security. And while he thinks that Lukashenka runs the risk of eventually alienating too many influential Muscovites, dispensing such a judgment about a politician who has already been at the helm of power for 27 years does not seem to be sagacious.
The Western approach is noticeably less flexible than Russia’s. On October 21, the Belarusian Consulate in New York will be closed as demanded by the US government (Svaboda, October 11). By now, even the formerly ardent supporters of economic sanctions among Belarus-watchers have understood that, in terms of reaching the cherished goals of the protest movement (fair elections and regime change), sanctions are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. In reality, they make Russia overly influential regarding Belarus and deprive the West of even a shred of its erstwhile influence. Case in point: Vitaly Tsyhankou of Radio Liberty, one of the advocates for more sanctions on Belarus, has shifted the focus of debate over sanctions. Instead of showing how useful they are, he posits whether or not Lukashenka would release the political prisoners if the sanctions were lifted. And because the answer is rather “no” than “yes,” why should one seek lifting the sanctions in the first place! (Facebook/ Tsyhankou, October 6). Pavel Matsukevich, now Senior Researcher at the Center of New Ideas, a Belarusian think tank composed of recent Belarusian exiles, is more straightforward. In his most recent interview (Euroradio, October 8) and an article (NewBelarus, October 8), he contends that sanctions hurt Belarusians but not the regime.
Against the backdrop of these widespread attitudes, the European Parliament has recommended new economic sanctions on Minsk. Does this mean that, unlike Russia that allegedly chose geopolitical pragmatism over matters of principle, the European institutions do the opposite? Not entirely. As Matsukevich shows, the EU tries its best to cancel air travel between Baghdad and Minsk because the flow of illegal immigrants streaming through Belarus hurts Europe. So, when the immediate interest of the EU is involved, it acts accordingly, but the national interest of Belarus is served poorly. Otherwise, issuing visas for Belarusians would be simplified and a ban on Belavia and Western airlines’ flights to Minsk would be lifted, which would benefit ordinary Belarusians.
However, as the EU is trying to stop the flow of migrants from Iraq via Belarus, it is not attempting to convince Iraq and other third countries, wherein the EU is influential, to refrain from sending new ambassadors to Minsk, which legitimizes Aliaksandr Lukashenka, who has to accept their accreditation letters. In September, Lukashenka received credentials from the ambassadors of nine countries; earlier, in April—from six; and in November 2020—from twelve ambassadors, including those of Israel, the Vatican, Japan and Turkey. And that is in addition to Lukashenka participating in the CSTO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summits and holding meetings with the leaders of Iran and Pakistan. At this rate, by 2025, one can easily gain recognition from half, or even 80 percent of the countries in the world, with which Belarus has diplomatic relations (183 countries), remarks Matsukevich.
The inevitable conclusion is that the existing contrast of Russia’s and the West’s approaches to official Minsk is a bad omen for Belarus and the West itself.