Canada’s Belarus sanctions are a good first step

Alyaksandr Lukashenka signs a document after taking the oath of office during a hastily called “inauguration” in Minsk, September 23

But much more is needed to bring dictator Lukashenka to his knees

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

On September 29, Canada joined forces with the United Kingdom in announcing sanctions against 11 Belarusian officials headed by embattled President Alyaksandr Lukashanka and his son Victor. Originally, the United States was to coordinate their sanctions with both Canada and the UK, but opted instead to wait for the European Union to make its decision. That was quite problematic since any one member of the EU can veto a decision and, in this case, it was Cyprus, which wanted sanctions applied against Turkey for its energy exploration work in disputed waters off the Mediterranean island nation’s coast before it would agree to the Belarus sanctions. Finally, a compromise was reached whereby the leaders agreed on a strong statement of support for Cyprus, as well as for Greece, and a stern warning to Turkey that it could face punitive measures if it continues the undersea drilling work. In all, the EU sanctioned 40 individuals, while the US sanctioned eight, not including Lukashenka.

According to Global Affairs, the sanctions announced September 29 are part of a broader diplomatic effort by Canada to find a way towards a positive change in the current situation in Belarus. These include efforts at supporting the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, advocating for media freedom and support to civil society.

“Canada will not stand by silently as the Government of Belarus continues to commit systematic human rights violations and shows no indication of being genuinely committed to finding a negotiated solution with opposition groups. Canada and the United Kingdom are acting together to ensure these sanctions have a greater impact and to demonstrate unity in our condemnation of the situation. Canada stands in solidarity with the people of Belarus as they struggle to restore human rights and achieve democracy in their country,” said Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne.

Canada’s sanctions fall under the Special Economic Measures (Belarus) Regulations, which impose a prohibition (effectively an asset freeze) on listed individuals by prohibiting persons in Canada and Canadians outside Canada from dealing in any property of these individuals or providing financial or related services to them. The individuals listed in the Schedule to the Regulations are also rendered inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

One significant aspect of the sanctions against Belarus is that they include Lukashenka and his son. This has not been the case with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not been sanctioned by any country despite bearing the greatest responsibility for the illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. This is an anomaly and it’s high time that Western democracies acknowledged this and personally sanctioned this 21st Century Tsar of Muscovite Russia.

As such, Canada’s sanctions against Belarus are an important first step. But that’s all they should be considered – a first step. Because there is much more that Canada and other Western democracies can do. Reacting to the sanctions announcement, the Belarusian Canadian Alliance (BCA), which has represented the Belarusian community in Canada since 1948, welcomed the news, but noted that the list of sanctioned individuals “falls regretfully short, as it only includes eleven names and leaves out the vast portion of the state apparatus – spanning political, electoral, security, military, judiciary branches, as well as the state media – that continue to enable the regime and propagate the violent repression of fundamental human rights and freedoms in Belarus.”

“Estonia is currently the country that leads the way in sanctioning Belarusian officials with the list of 128 individuals. To further support the Belarusian people, Canada should expand the list of sanctioned individuals and provide financial aid to humanitarian programs,” it continues.

In addition, the BCA asks the Government of Canada to:

  • Establish de facto relations with the (Belarusian) Coordination Council as the interim government
  • Impose greater sanctions on the Belarusian regime;
  • Demand the release of all political prisoners;
  • Open and fund new Social Assistance Programs;
  • Provide humanitarian assistance;

Call on the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to withdraw its decision to hold the 2021 World Ice Hockey Championship in Belarus.

In its release, the BCA quotes Belarusian Political Scientist Dmitry Bolkunez who noted that the sanctions imposed by the UK and Canada against Lukashenka’s regime “bear more of an informational and psychological effect.”

“In the past 26 years, the Belarusian president has never visited the two countries and hasn’t made any attempts at developing a relationship with them. Lukashenka is not intimidated by being added to the list of sanctioned officials. A much greater threat would be an embargo on the purchase of Belarusian petroleum products and potassium fertilizers. If such harsh measures are undertaken, Lukashenka’s regime will fall within a few weeks under the pressure from factories. In any case, the sanctions are a bad omen for potential investors and trade partners, who will think twice before cooperating with the Belarusian government. Lukashenka has reinforced his reputation of a ‘castaway’ in the eyes of the Western world and his time has long since passed. He will not be able to cling on to power much longer.”

Bolkunez’s suggestions deserve to be considered very seriously and implemented in an action coordinated with our allies. The top exports of Belarus are refined petroleum amounting to US$6.54 billion a year, followed by potassium fertilizers at US$2.75 billion per year.

What’s more, the Belarusian state structure is facing an economic crisis. At a recent webinar on Belarus, sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, said that Belarus only has enough foreign currency reserves to last a few months. If the country runs out of foreign reserves and the ruble starts a nosedive, Lukashenka will not have enough funds to pay his storm troopers who will then desert him like rats leaving a sinking ship. Lukashenka may then be forced to flee the country and join his good friend Viktor Yanukovych in the Vladimir Putin Home for Ousted Dictators.

So, again, we welcome the sanctions announced on September 29 as a good first step, but stress that it should only be considered a first step. Much more is needed to bring Lukashenka to his knees and freedom for the long-suffering people of Belarus.