The de facto hijacking of an airplane for the purpose of arresting journalist Roman Protasevich on Whit Sunday can be a useful wake-up call for Europe: The EU should be proactive in developing strategies rather than waiting to react only when authoritarian politicians like Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whom it does not recognise anyway, break international rules.
Be it civil aviation, kidnappings of opposition members, assassinations across borders, or security and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, the patterns of action are similar and they affect us directly, such as the gradual testing of limits in violations of law.
The word “Rus’” in the name Belarus stands for the medieval empire of the “Kievan Rus’” and shows how wrong it is to understand Belarus as part of Russia. In fact, however, Belarus is so closely intertwined with its large neighbour that the Kremlin can exert its influence there regardless of Lukashenko. This is especially true of the economy.
However, Russia has only a limited interest in still burdening its own state budget with Belarus. So, if President Putin supports the president, who is illegitimate from the European point of view, he does so because he is worried that Russia might also change from the bottom up.
After all, it would be a strong signal if, after the Ukrainians, the Belarusians also managed peacefully to push through free and fair elections. It does not matter that the Belarusian opposition has always made it clear that they value relations with Russia and the European Union equally and do not want to be forced to make a choice.
Demonstrate cohesion also vis-à-vis Russia and China
The interdependencies between Russia and Belarus, above all, set limits to the effectiveness of western sanctions. At least as long as Russia and also China provide financial aid to Minsk.
Western policy vis-à-vis Belarus will, therefore, hardly be effective without taking Russia (and also China) into account. This includes addressing how authoritarian state models shape the economy. Dependence on Russia or China at the European periphery affects the stability of Europe as a whole.
European policy without a good neighbourhood policy
One answer may be to deepen Europe’s interdependencies with the resolute democracies in the neighbourhood. This requires a positive economic vision for the entire region.
The EU has many different initiatives in its eastern neighbourhood. Yet investments in infrastructure, for example, would have a greater impact if they were combined and strategically aligned – instead of letting the Chinese Silk Road initiative, which includes Belarus, have its way. Where appropriate, reliable partners could also be integrated into supply chains. Their resilience is a prerequisite for a sovereign Europe
In any case, it is risky to continue leaving the citizens in the EU neighbourhood alone without clearly positive prospects for the future, at best with stagnation or tough reforms. After all, this will have an impact on people’s political attitude and creative energy.
Illiberalism as a thing of the past or model for the future?
What does it do to people, e.g. in Ukraine, when they are confronted for years with the effects of static warfare? When difficult structural reforms drag on for decades, such as in the Republic of Moldova, and reform successes repeatedly bring old elites onto the scene who place their vested interests above the common good? And what signal does it send if Europe does not offer people who have been protesting for democracy for months in the face of danger to life or physical condition solidarity-based protection wherever possible?
The roughly nine million Belarusians who have been suffering from heinous violence since August of last year could be helped by visa-free travel and unbureaucratic work permits – by all means limited until the end of Lukashenko’s regime – as well as the possibility of being able to take pension claims acquired in EU states with them to Belarus.
Keeping the Belarusians’ faith in Europe
Offering these people a perspective in the EU is in Europe’s own interest. Qualified specialists from Belarus would, moreover, be beneficial for economic development as soon as openings arise. They would be ready with their experience to make their own country fit for the future when the time comes. KfW aid programmes for business start-ups are another example of how Germany could use its “soft power” in a targeted manner.
The majority of IT experts have already left the country into different directions. Qualified workers or entire companies will continue to emigrate from Belarus, at least as long as the regime does not completely close the borders. If there are no other options left, they will go to Russia.
The people in Belarus have emancipated themselves under the most difficult conditions and come together as a society and nation, across borders, e.g. intellectuals and workers in state-owned companies. Giving these people a concrete perspective for the future would not only be an appropriate European response given the violence and arbitrariness but would also make Europe stronger. For Belarusian society has grown despite or with the repressions and will bear fruit. It is now up to Europe to help them grow.
Photo: Natallia Rak via Flickr.com, August 30, 2020.