Time to get serious with Belarus sanctions

Protest_actions in_Minsk_(Belarus), 2020 wikipedia.org

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

Six months after fraudulent elections, thing just get worse

Over six months have passed since the August 9 Belarus Presidential Elections, which were declared to be fraudulent by Canada, Ukraine, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, other democratic states and the people of Belarus themselves. Since then, Belarusians have taken to the streets with massive protests that continue to this day. Western democracies have responded with a series of escalating sanctions.

Among the most recent are the visa restrictions imposed by the U.S. Department of State on 43 Belarusian individuals in response to the February 16 raids on the human rights organization Vyasna, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, and independent trade union workers, as well as the February 18 sentencing of journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova. This was a follow up to two previous rounds of sanctions against 66 individuals “making them generally ineligible for entry into the United States.” Just what “generally ineligible” means is not quite clear.

The European Union announced its third round of sanctions on December 17, 2020, bringing the total number to 88 individuals and seven entities. Canada’s latest, also the third round, were announced on November 6, 2020 bringing our total to 55 individuals. Both Canada’s and the EU’s sanctions involve travel bans and asset freezes.

So, what have all these sanctions accomplished? Not much really. Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues to hold on to power and brutally suppress the protests. Water cannons, flash grenades, rubber-coated bullets, tear gas, and even live ammunition are used to break up the rallies. Participants continue to be arrested and tortured.

If anything, the repressions are bound to get even worse. Belarusian lawmakers are reportedly preparing to consider legal changes that would make almost any criticism of the government “extremist” behavior that could lead to severe punishment including the loss of livelihood and citizenship.

What is becoming clear is that the sanctions imposed to date are ineffective. So what if Lukashenka and his cronies can’t travel to Canada, or even the EU for that matter? They obviously don’t care. And money can be held in any number of countries offering offshore havens. What is missing are sanctions aimed at those industries that generate hard currency for the despotic Lukashenka regime.

In our November 16, 2020 editorial, we called for sanctions that target Lukashenka’s money supply. We noted that Lukashenka controls hundreds of private companies through a mechanism known as the Management of Presidential Affairs which provides him with money, and it is these companies that should be targeted with boycotts. We also pointed out that refined petroleum products and potash fertilizer account for the bulk of Belarusian exports and thus provide the greatest source of foreign currency reserves for Lukashenka. Belarus is the world second largest producer of potash. The largest is Canada, primarily the Province of Saskatchewan. Therefore, any boycott of potash would have the added benefit of driving up the world price, thus providing more revenue for Canadian potash producers.
Maybe Western democracies will finally come to the realization that the only way to stop the violence and vicious crackdown on human rights in Belarus is to implement effective sanctions that will cut off Lukashenka’s sources of revenue, thus affecting his ability to pay his storm troopers. This, in turn, will lead to his downfall in the same way as Ukraine’s former dictator Viktor Yanukovych had to flee the country after his own security forces refused to follow his orders any longer.

There is some hope on the horizon. A group of European Union states with diplomatic representatives in Belarus, together with the bloc’s delegation in Minsk, is recommending several paths for the 27-member bloc to take, including expanding the scope of sanctions against Lukashenka. The paper, entitled “EU Heads Of Mission Report: February 2021 Review Of The EU Restrictive Measures Against Belarus”, outlines four different paths that Brussels can take — “Wait and See,” “A Pragmatic Equi-Distant,” “Decisive Continued Downgrading of Relations,” and “A Near Total Freeze of Relations.”

It is the fourth option which would be most effective. It involves the severance of diplomatic relations, including the withdrawal of EU member states’ ambassadors, a full sanctions regime hitting various industrial sectors, a ban on the sale of Eurobonds, and the possible alignment of the sanctions regime with that imposed on Russia. A moratorium on Belarus’s participation in Eastern Partnership structures and a formal recognition of a government in exile would also be on the cards.

In this nuclear age, any military action can be extremely dangerous. That’s why sanctions are imposed. But to be effective, sanctions must have teeth. There is a little-known, but interesting chapter of history which points out what can happen when a mealy-mouthed approach is taken towards sanctions. Ironically, it involves Canada. In 1935, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini decided to invade Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia), one of only two African states that were independent at that time. (The other was Liberia). The League of Nations reacted by imposing token sanctions, but the Canadian delegate to the League, Walter Alexander Riddell, proposed adding steel and oil to make them more effective. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King promptly disavowed Riddell and removed him as League envoy. That put the lid on any attempt to contain the aggression. The League’s failure in this case emboldened not only Mussolini, but also Adolph Hitler and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo to embark on their respective paths of invasion and annexation. And we all know what that led to.

Therefore, if Western democracies are seriously concerned about ending the violence in Belarus and the brutality of the Lukashenka regime, then it’s time to get serious with sanctions.