Belarus – European Union: From smoldering confrontation to hot escalation
The confrontation between Belarus and the European Union escalated sharply in 2021. The forced landing of the Ryanair plane took it to a new level, and made the Belarusian issue on Brussels’ agenda a global problem and a source of hybrid threats.
The European Union continued the step-by-step increase of the sanction pressure on Alexander Lukashenko to force him meet a number of conditions. The latter’s attempts to make the EU contact him directly and recognize him as a legitimate leader through bargaining over constitutional reform, as well as escalation of tensions in the region by provoking the migration crisis and making other threats predictably led to minor tactical concessions. Strategically, Belarus only spurred a new round of sanctions imposed by the European Union and its Western partners in the form of the air blockade and two additional packages of restrictions, including targeted sectoral sanctions.
- Abandonment of the idea to engage the Belarusian authorities in dialogue on matters of critical importance to the European Union, which chose the gradual and comprehensive expansion of sanctions instead;
- Further rejection of Lukashenko as a legitimate and independent political actor by the EU, which shifted the focus onto cooperation with Belarusian democrats in exile;
- Loss of control over the escalated situation by Belarus, which resulted in unprecedentedly tough sanctions;
- Deferred effects of the European sanctions against the Belarusian economy and trade with the European Union.
Diplomatic contacts: no business as usual
Belarus’ relationship with the European Union strongly worsened in 2021, in many respects, as a result of the political crisis in Belarus that arose in 2020. The high-level political dialogue was put on hold, and so was the EU’s technical assistance and inter-sector cooperation, except for nuclear and radiation safety matters.1
The smoldering Belarus – European Union confrontation continued in the first half of the year. Both parties were publicly exchanging verbal attacks, and that was pretty much it, mostly because Minsk sought to retain at least few communication channels, and started bargaining over constitutional reform in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and returning to business as usual.
Although Minsk emphasized the prevailing importance of Russia to Belarus’ foreign policy, the concept of multi-vector policy did not go anywhere. Lukashenko said at the 6th All-Belarusian People’s Assembly that Belarus was interested in well-balanced and diverse relations with the outside world, including with the European Union. Although the authorities tried to make the assembly look like an inclusive dialogue with the opposition and civil society, it was met with harsh criticism from the European Parliament, which called it in a special statement a mockery of democracy devoid of legitimacy, and demanded that the repression and human rights violations stop, and a genuine national dialogue leading to a smooth transition of power begin.2
Since Minsk kept ignoring Brussels’ demands and continued repressions against civil society, the opposition and independent media (tut.by case), the EU began preparing a fourth package of sanctions in May.
The forced landing of the Ryanair plane on May 23 in Minsk in order to arrest opposition blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were on board, sharply strained Belarusian-European relations. This incident prompted the EU to drop the idea to engage the Belarusian authorities in dialogue. The EU rejected Lukashenko as a legitimate and independent political actor, and switched to cooperation with Belarusian civil society and the opposition.
On May 28, the European Commission presented a brief version of a comprehensive plan of economic support for Belarus. As soon as Belarus embarks on the path of democratic transformation, the EU will activate the EUR 3 billion package, which is a combination of grants and loans involving public and private investments to help the country reform its institutions and increase the sustainability of its economy.3
The second half of the year was marked by a rapid escalation of tensions between Belarus and the European Union. For the first time in recent history, in coordination with the United States, the United Kingdom and Western allies, the EU imposed targeted sectoral sanctions (the fourth package) on June 21 and 24, starting the transition to a common strategy with regard to the Belarusian crisis that followed the 2020 presidential election. The strategy provides for increasing pressure on the Lukashenko regime until a number of demands are met: to stop violence against civilians, unconditionally release all political prisoners, stop politically-motivated criminal prosecution, start a dialogue with society, and hold a new presidential election under the supervision of the OSCE and other international organizations.
On June 28, head of the European Union Delegation to Belarus Dirk Schuebel was summoned to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, where he was strongly advised to leave for Brussels for consultations. The Foreign Ministry said that Belarus suspended its participation in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership initiative, began the procedure of suspending the readmission agreement with the European Union, and banned the entry to the country for “representatives of European institutions and individuals who contributed to the introduction of restrictive measures”. Belarus’ Permanent Representative to the European Union Alexander Mikhnevich was also recalled to Minsk for consultations.
Although the orchestrated migration crisis at the Belarusian border with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland in June and its escalation in October and November led to some communication with the EU on technical issues at the level of experts, Lukashenko still did not achieve his legitimization by the West. Instead, the sanctions intensified, and new ones were added to the list. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry had to acknowledge the failure of the tactics applied, accused the EU of the unilateral freezing of cooperation in border management and ignoring signals from Minsk.
Meanwhile, Minsk also continued to ignore signals sent by some European countries, which offered mediation services to normalize relations. Belarus sharply criticized the initiative of the Austrian Foreign Ministry to hold an international conference in November in Vienna to discuss the situation in Belarus (although it was initially willing to send experts there). Lukashenko continued to insist on direct contacts with the European Union without any involvement of the Belarusian democratic community in exile. A constitutional referendum and the possible consideration of the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus were used as bargaining chips in exchange for eased sanctions.
The European Union adopted on December 2 the fifth package of sanctions in connection with ongoing human rights violations and the use of migrants as a political tool. The EU stated that the reason for the contradictions with Belarus stemmed from “the cruel, repressive and illegal nature of the Lukashenko regime”.
Shortly before the 6th Eastern Partnership summit (December 15, 2021), a delegation of Belarusian democrats in exile met with High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrel and President of the European Council Charles Michel to discuss Belarus – European Union relations at the current stage and after Lukashenko’s resignation, including national dialogue on new elections and implementation of the EU assistance plan for a democratic Belarus.
Minsk’s response: escalation, blackmail and threats
Striving for the EU’s attention, the Belarusian authorities combined usual diplomatic tools with the “escalation for de-escalation” strategy, blackmail and threats.4 At first, Minsk threatened to completely sever diplomatic ties with the European Union by closing its embassies, and hinted at continued repression and destruction of civil society if the European Union and other Western countries did not lift the sanctions.
Right after the incident with the Ryanair plane, the Belarusian leadership began translating into action the previously voiced threat to stop protecting Europe from illegal migrants, and to liquidate non-governmental organizations. The migration crisis escalated on November 15–16 at the Belarusian-Polish border, which was a kind of success for the Belarusian authorities, since the EU had to reopen anti-crisis channels of communication with Minsk. During negotiations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who acted as an intermediary between Belarus and the EU, Lukashenko put forward two conditions: the sanctions must be lifted, and he must be recognized as legitimate president. The European Commission agreed to talk with Belarus, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Organization for Migration about the repatriation of migrants. The EU also allocated EUR 700,000 in humanitarian aid to the migrants massed at the Belarusian-Polish border.5
However, the very fact of the negotiations did not mean that the EU was going to make concessions to Lukashenko. Josep Borrell stressed that bringing migrants to the European Union’s border would not help the Belarusian government resume direct political dialogue or divert attention from the internal crisis. The dialogue would be resumed if the authorities stopped violations and started respecting human rights.6 The EU thus continued dismissing the Belarusian government as a partner, preferring to work directly with the countries from where the migrants were coming to the border (the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) to stop their inflow via Belarus and combat human trafficking.
Looking for a joint resolution, the EU put the Belarusian issue on the agenda of European Union – Russia relations, which was another unexpected outcome of the migration blackmail. Brussels also asked the Kremlin to put pressure on Lukashenko. Contrary to Minsk’s hopes, the migration crisis did not lead to a breach of solidarity inside the European Union or an altercation between Warsaw and Vilnius on the one hand, and Brussels on the other. On the contrary, it contributed to an unprecedented consolidation of the EU and increased sanctions pressure on Belarus.
Having failed to achieve its goals, in response to the fourth package of sanctions and the preparation of the fifth one, Minsk continued threating the EU with:
- a new migration crisis (this time with Afghan refugees);
- counter-sanctions and pressure on European businesses in Belarus;
- cutting off Russian gas supplies through the Yamal-Europe pipeline;
- surrender of its independence and sovereignty to Russia due to continuing sanctions;
- placement of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus;
- new challenges to global regional stability and security, including the risk of World War III.
In practice, Minsk intensified repressions against civil society, launched transit wars with Lithuania, adopted counter-sanctions, expelled European diplomats, etc. The European Union responded by preparing the sixth package of sanctions.
European sanctions and Belarusian counter-sanctions: business as usual
In its sanctions policy, the European Union was guided by a step-by-step approach: Brussels was ready to consider the possibility of imposing additional sanctions should the situation in Belarus continue to deteriorate. However, the sanctions are reversible, and can be lifted, provided that the Belarusian authorities stop the repressions, release and rehabilitate all political prisoners, and engage in a genuine inclusive national dialogue with civil society.
The fourth package of sanctions against Belarus was supposed to be adopted as soon as January, but was repeatedly postponed, apparently, because of both the lack of coordination of positions of the member states, and the retention of tools in case Minsk stopped fueling the confrontation. The Ryanair incident accelerated the process, and sanctions became tougher.
At the May 24 session, the European Council vehemently condemned the forced landing of the Ryanair plane in Minsk, demanded the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega, and recommended that the EU Council promptly impose additional sanctions. On June 4, the EU Council banned all Belarusian air carriers from European airports, and called for expanded sanctions.
On June 21, the EU Council met with leader of the Belarusian democratic community Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. On the same day, European Union foreign ministers approved the fourth package of sanctions against Belarus, which applies to 78 individuals and eight companies.
On June 24, targeted economic (sectoral) sanctions against the oil, potash, tobacco, banking and some other sectors of the Belarusian economy were approved separately, yet with a delay in their full entry into force until early 2022.
On November 15, the Council amended the sanctions criteria to allow the application of targeted restrictive measures against individuals and entities, who organized or participated in activities of the Lukashenko regime, facilitating the trespassing of the European Union’s border.
Due to ongoing human rights violations and the use of migrants as political leverage, the European Union adopted on December 2 the fifth package of sanctions against another 17 individuals and 11 legal entities, targeting prominent members of the judiciary and propaganda organizations that contribute to the ongoing repression of civil society, the opposition, independent media and journalists, as well as the companies that helped provoke and organize illegal migration through the EU border for political purposes.
Overall, by the end of 2021, the European Union sanctions against Belarus applied to 183 individuals and 26 legal entities. Their assets are to be frozen, and citizens and companies of the European Union are prohibited from lending money to them. Individuals are also subject to a travel ban, which prevents them from entering or transiting the territory of the European Union.
In response, Belarus announced counter-sanctions, which included:
- a ban on imports of some Western commodities into Belarus, including a food embargo against the European Union and other Western countries in the first half of 2022 (USD 500 million in imports in total);
- expansion of the list of persons banned from entering Belarus and the Union State;
- continued implementation of the Union State programs and closer economic cooperation with Russia, partners in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and outside the EEU;
- restrictions on EU and UK air carriers, following the sanctions against Belavia;
- a number of other steps of a non-public nature.7
The biggest problems for the Belarusian authorities were caused by the US sanctions, which affected relations with European countries, especially Lithuania and Latvia, which stopped the transit of Belarusian oil products and potash fertilizers at the end of the year.
Despite the unprecedented EU sanctions pressure, Minsk did not feel its significant impacts on trade and economic relations in 2021. The European Union remained the second largest economic counterparty of Belarus after Russia. The trade turnover with the EU amounted to USD 16.3 billion (up 36.5% from 2020). Belarus’ exports to the EU reached USD 9.5 billion (up 74.4%, by USD 5.5 billion); imports stood at USD 6.8 billion (up 4.5%). Belarus’ surplus in trade with the EU was at USD 2.75 billion, crude oil and oil products, wood products, and ferrous metals topping the list of export items.
Export of services amounted to USD 2.74 billion (+7.3% against 2020); imports – USD 1.85 billion (+20%); surplus – USD 0.89 billion. The Netherlands, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy were the main trade partners of Belarus.
EU’s direct investments totaled USD 545.98 million, showing a little decrease against 2020 (USD 583.34 million).8 This resulted mainly from the deferred effect of the targeted sectoral sanctions, which were scheduled to come into full force in early 2022. This delay was caused by the need to give European business time to substitute Belarusian goods with those from alternative sources in the supply chain.
The year 2021 was a turning point in relations between Belarus and the European Union. After a series of escalatory steps taken by Minsk, it became clear that a return to the status quo that existed before the 2020 presidential election in Belarus was impossible. The Belarusian authorities must change their behavior, which is an essential prerequisite for a revision of the sanctions policy.
In particular, the European Union expects the release of political prisoners, putting an end to repressions and human rights violations, and establishment of a broad dialogue with the democratic opposition and civil society with international mediation. If these conditions are met, the EU will be ready not only to lift the sanctions, but also to resume dialogue with Minsk. However, to fully lift the sanctions, the Belarusian authorities will have to hold new free and fair elections, which is the difference between the previous and the current lists of requirements.
Since these conditions and requirements are unacceptable for Alexander Lukashenko, further intensification of pressure and isolation of Belarus by the European Union in coordination with other Western partners seem to be the most likely scenario.