Soon after Ryanair Flight 4978 took to the air again after its forced landing in Minsk on May 23, 2021, the European commissioner for transportation, Adina Valean, tweeted that the resumed flight was “great news for everyone especially the families and friends of people onboard.”
Twitter users pointed out that Belarusian dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend did not reboard the airplane, with Protasevich fearful for his safety. The tweet exemplified for many observers the European Union’s “business-as-usual” attitude, despite the clear challenge to international law.
Though Valean later tweeted that the “hijacking” was “outrageous,” the reputational damage was done. But how did the E.U. gain such a weak reputation for responding to the misdeeds of Belarus’s 26-year dictatorship? Here’s what you need to know.
The E.U. has walked back sanctions on Belarus many times
Alexander Lukashenko became president of Belarus in 1994. Though many of the country’s neighbors in central and Eastern Europe implemented democratic reforms and eventually joined the E.U., he pursued an authoritarian path, relying on a mixture of Soviet nostalgia and economic performance to legitimate his rule.
His quick turn to authoritarianism precluded the ratification of an E.U. Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which the E.U. used to support the development of market economies in former Soviet republics. The E.U. first imposed sanctions on Belarus in 1996 but suspended them in 1999 upon the apparent resolution of a controversy surrounding E.U. diplomatic residences.
Belarus, many critics claim, has never held free and fair elections. In 2004, the E.U. imposed further sanctions just ahead of the parliamentary elections, amid concern over “the continuing deterioration of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Belarus.” But these sanctions were limited, targeting two government ministers, the prosecutor general and a special forces officer.
In another cycle, the E.U. had mostly eased these sanctions by 2008, but then mounted a more serious sanctioning effort following the 2010 presidential election. Opposition leaders, along with hundreds of protesters who rallied against his regime, were imprisoned, and Lukashenko was able to garner 80 percent of the vote in an election the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe deemed “flawed.”
In view of these abuses, the E.U. imposed an arms embargo, along with asset freezes and travel bans against 243 individuals, including Lukashenko, three Belarusian defense companies and 29 other companies. It’s not clear these sanctions were effective — in 2012, Belarusian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulyashou attended an Interpol conference in Lyon, France, despite his travel ban.
These sanctions remained in effect until early 2016. Despite much progress on human rights issues in Belarus — although the government did release some political prisoners — the E.U. suspended sanctions, other than the arms embargo and sanctions on the four individuals targeted in 2004.
Russia is the reason the E.U. has been so cautious
The E.U.’s caution is rooted in the relationship between Belarus and Russia. Although Belarus is a formal military ally of Russia, Lukashenko had been careful to distance himself from Russia following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Uncomfortable with the local territorial status quo being upset by his own patron, Lukashenko positioned himself as a mediator in the Donbas war. For the E.U., loosening the Belarus sanctions, while sanctioning Russia, would drive a wedge between Moscow and Minsk.
The 2020 election prompted a new round of E.U. sanctions
But the country’s August 2020 presidential election prompted widespread protests after Lukashenko claimed victory, despite documented claims the election results were falsified. The wave of repression that unfolded in Minsk and other Belarusian cities was hard to ignore, especially as Belarusian citizens effectively skirted government controls by using social media platforms.
The E.U. imposed sanctions yet again on Belarus, in three successive rounds. These sanctions involve a travel ban and an asset freeze so that the targeted individuals can’t transit through E.U. territories or receive funds from E.U. citizens.
The first round, implemented almost two months after the fraudulent August elections, targeted 40 individuals the E.U. deemed responsible for the brutal intimidation campaign following the election as well as for the misconduct of the electoral process itself. Lukashenko and his son Viktar, who serves as national security adviser, were excluded from this list along with other key people in the president’s inner circle.
The second series of sanctions, implemented in November, expanded the sanctions to include both Lukashenkos, plus 12 more individuals tied to the regime. The third series in December added 29 individuals to the sanctions list, targeting businesspeople and companies supportive of the regime. Complementing these sanctions, most E.U. countries recalled their ambassadors.
The E.U. now has few options
E.U. policy toward Belarus stalled since December, even as Belarusian authorities have kept up their use of arrests and harsh intimidation tactics against the opposition. E.U. members have dithered on a fourth series of sanctions, with Lithuania, Poland, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and others arguing that the current sanctions have been inadequate. In fact, these sanctions are less significant in scope than those implemented after the 2010 election.
Several factors explain this apparent reluctance to do more. One is that further sanctions would harm ordinary Belarusians — yet do little to change Lukashenko’s behavior. Another is that these sanctions could push Belarusian leaders and businesses to strengthen their ties with Russia.
Some critics, however, point out that Lukashenko has nowhere to go now but into Russia’s embrace. And, of course, those advocating for stronger sanctions have expressed frustration over Europe’s policies toward Moscow despite Russia’s malign cyber operations, use of chemical weapons, war-making in eastern Ukraine and arms control violations.
Is a fourth round of sanctions likely? The boldness of Sunday’s “aviation piracy” suggests that Lukashenko has calculated that the E.U. lacks the resolve to do much about his repression of Belarusian society.
On Monday night, the European Council demanded Protasevech’s release, advocated expanded sanctions and called for E.U. carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace — and for E.U. countries to deny airspace to Belarusian carriers. The E.U.’s record thus far, however, suggests that the design, implementation and enforcement of such a strong sanctioning effort may leave much to be desired.
Alexander Lanoszka is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo and Ernest A. Bevin Associate Fellow in Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the London-based Council on Geostrategy. Follow him on Twitter at @ALanoszka.