Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has managed to place himself at the centre of European politics. Within a month he has signing a broad pact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, securing Moscow’s complete backing of his regime and thrown the EU into a panic – with the bloc accusing Belarus of luring thousands of refugees and migrants towards Poland's border.
The EU are set to approve further sanctions over some individuals and entities in Belarus over the crisis on the border – but is that the extent of the action that will be be taken? Surely we need a stricter sanctions regime?
Some might point to Russia and say "sanctions don’t work" – with western diplomatic pressure having produced few results. But I would argue that Belarus isn’t Russia – there are few European and US business interests, and there is no dependence for energy supplies (unlike in case of Russia with its oil and gas). Therefore, Belarus might become the best possible testing site for radical sanctions policies,
More sanctions would take the total number of people under sanction in Belarus to almost 200 people - including Lukashenko and his sons - and more than a dozen institutions and companies. In the summer the EU had banned Belarusian planes from its skies or accessing its airports after the forced grounding of a Ryanair flight, but according to Belarus the losses amounted to no more than 0.5 per cent of the Belarusian GDP, and 0.16 per cent of the jobs in the country were put under threat.
Other sanctions against the potassium and oil industries look not very dangerous since the EU, UK, U.S. and Canada account for only 11.6 per cent of exported fertilizers, and up to a half of gasoline and heating oil goes to Ukraine, which hasn’t joined the sanction agreements.
So, the major question now is whether the game-changing sanctions against Belarus may be introduced, and what should they look like?
First, I believe the west should not restrict certain exports to or from Belarus but introduce a complete trade embargo. This will close a significant market for Minsk (the EU, UK, U.S., Switzerland, Canada, and Ukraine account for 33.2 per cent of Belarusian exports and 26.2 per cent of imports). Such a measure will lead to collapse of many enterprises running on western equipment or requiring imported spare parts and lead to a dramatic decrease in "gray imports" to Russia. Most importantly, it will close the European market for smugglers and the disappearance of imported goods from Belarusian stores will have a strong impression on ordinary people.
Second, a complete ban on any transit through the territory of Belarus. Today, a significant proportion of trade between Russia and the EU pass through Belarus. Almost 6 per cent of Belarusian GDP is created in the transport sector. Moreover, a transit ban would hit Russia. Finally, Russian plans to build a transport corridor from China to Europe will be torpedoed by this move, which becomes a blow to Moscow's prestige.
Third, the financial sanctions should include not only a ban for lending to Belarusian state-controlled banks, but a complete termination of any financial operations, including discontinuing of servicing credit and debit cards issued in Belarus and a block should be placed on money transfers to and from Belarus. Fourth, personal sanctions should be extended to all more civil servants, employees of law enforcement agencies and those involved in state-controlled banks and enterprises.
Fifth – and this looks the most radical measure – I would think on revoking the SSL certificates of the websites of Belarusian government institutions, state enterprises and banks. This would make it impossible to encrypt the transmitted data and therefore discontinue all transactions requiring personal data protection.
It has been suggested that putting such "excessive" pressure on Minsk will push Lukashenka to cede Belarusian sovereignty and thereby strengthen Putin’s Russia, but pressure is the only way that change can occur. Citizens need to believe should feel that they all will pay for their government’s failures – and it is civil protest in Belarus that has the best chance of success. Many of them don't support an increase in tries between Belarus and Russia and while ordinary people feeling the effects of sanctions is unfortunate, it may have to be the case.
I believe the west should sharply increase sanctions pressure on Belarus in order to cause a new wave of popular indignation and have Lukashenko think twice about his diplomatic moves towards Russia. Compromises should be put aside, as since both Lukashenko and Putin understand only the language of diplomatic force – something which the west has to learn.
Vladislav L Inozemtsev is a special advisor to MEMRI’s Russian media studies project
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