Tyrannical at home, dangerous abroad, President Lukashenko is stronger than ever

Sixteen years after its inception, the Belarus Free Theatre, a popular theatre troupe, took the decision last week to leave Belarus for good.

Many in the art world have bristled at this loss, but in truth, self-imposed exile to escape the authoritarian whims of President Alexander Lukashenko has become the norm for prominent Belarusians.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, the Olympic sprinter, defected at the Tokyo games this August, and Roman Protasevich, the anti-Lukashenko journalist, would have done the same if his flight hadn’t been pulled out of the sky and forced to land in Belarus.

That egregious breach of international law, now typical of the Lukashenko regime, resulted in the imposition of sanctions on Belarus by the UK, US, and EU, each one desperate to bring Europe’s last dictator to heel.

Yet, it has become clear that their desperation resulted in the enforcement of an ill-conceived policy, with Lukashenko, having rejigged his economy to circumvent the sanctions, still being all-powerful in Belarus and equally menacing on the international stage.

Rather than the Lukashenko government, it is the Belarusian people who have suffered under Western restrictions, left to watch their society and culture wither on the vine.

Reflecting the difficulty of life in Belarus under Lukashenko, the Free Theatre was forced to move its communications to encrypted messaging services and take its performances underground.

The troupe used the homes of its members, trusted bars and restaurants, and even a garden if needed be, all with an exit route for when the authorities came knocking.

Belarus’ internal security forces, based on the Russian KGB, are now as strong and well-equipped as ever and would often raid shows, arresting actors and members of the audience.

Their social and cultural rights curtailed, the only solace for ordinary Belarusians has been the readjustment of their economy to life under Western restrictions.

When the UK, US, and EU imposed sanctions this summer in response to the forced grounding of a Ryanair flight containing the unlucky Protasevich, Lukashenko quickly found support in the form of Russian economic aid.

Alongside $630 million in loans, Putin’s Kremlin is providing Belarus with natural gas at a heavily discounted rate to help meet its energy demands.

Belarus’ consumer goods exporters are also benefiting from deeper integration with Russian markets and the country’s potash industry is replacing a loss in European sales with Chinese contracts.

As a result, the Belarusian economy is believed to have grown by a robust 3.3% in the first seven months of 2021 and this means that Lukashenko is under no obligation to institute democratic and humanitarian reforms at home.

In other words, far from undermining and eventually deposing of Lukashenko, Western sanctions have instead served to cement him in place.

While this has been deeply concerning for many in European foreign policy circles, it won’t have surprised them.

Why? Because they will have watched on as Russia’s extensive sanctioning since 2014 has failed to loosen Vladimir Putin’s iron-fisted grip on power, with the brunt of the restrictions being felt not by Russia’s ruling elite, but by its people.

Indeed, defensive economies, though robust enough to keep the sanctioned regime in power, see their businesses and citizens cut off from the outside world, starving them of investment, innovation, and collaboration.

Unfortunately for the West, Putin’s Russia, and now Belarus, have perfected this model to a tee.

Western leaders must therefore accept that a change of approach is required to protect ordinary Belarussians from their President’s repressive tendencies.

While Lukashenko does not deserve to be engaged as an equal, money talks, and he would undoubtedly see the winding down of authoritarian measures as a tempting price to pay for the slow withdrawal of economic sanctions.

Perhaps just as enticingly for Western leaders, they must surely have realised that a pacified Lukashenko would help to solve a number of their immediate foreign policy challenges.

The Belarusian President’s transportation of Middle Eastern migrants to the EU’s border, for example, is causing a humanitarian crisis that looks set to rival that of 2016.

More worrying still is Lukashenko’s recent announcement that he would support Russia if it made further incursions into eastern Ukraine.

As such, both crises are clearly a heavy price to pay for the sanctions-induced estrangement of Belarus, a policy that has failed in its ostensible aim of removing Lukashenko.

Therefore, the West must return to measured diplomacy in order to rescue Belarussians, and European democracy, from a decade of strife and instability.

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