Europe’s “last dictatorship” may be coming in from the cold.
European Union foreign ministers this week quietly ended a range of sanctions targeting the regime of longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and some of the former Soviet republic’s largest state-owned firms, despite protests from human rights groups both in Belarus and the West.
EU officials said the move reflects a “positive trend” toward greater openness and freedom in Belarus, but analysts say it also is the fruit of a skillful campaign by Mr. Lukashenko to make his landlocked country of 9.5 million people a key player on some of the continent’s major fault lines, including the struggle in neighboring Ukraine and the larger clash between Russia and the West.
The move, which came just days after a United Nations review described the human rights situation in Belarus as “dismal,” sparked an immediate protest from pro-democracy groups.
Washington-based Freedom House, which rates Belarus the least free country on the continent, said the EU was “unaccountably rewarding” Mr. Lukashenko despite a lack of real progress on human rights.
Andrei Sannikov, whose harsh treatment in the 2010 race against Mr. Lukashenko led to fresh Western sanctions against Minsk, called the EU move “a very clear signal to the dictatorship that it can continue its practices.”
Speaking from Warsaw, where he now lives in exile, Mr. Sannikov added, “We know when sanctions are lifted or the policy is softened that we face more repression.”
But despite the criticism, Mr. Lukashenko appears to have managed to preserve an unchallenged hold on power at home and easing his pariah status in the West, while at the same time maintaining economic and political ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Though Belarus will likely continue to strengthen its relationship with the West, its strategic orientation toward Russia will not change,” according to a new analysis Wednesday by the private intelligence service Stratfor. “Instead, Minsk will try to leverage its connections to each party to gain concessions from both sides.”
The EU and the Obama administration in October suspended many of the longstanding sanctions imposed on Mr. Lukashenko and his allies after the government released a number of political prisoners and after a relatively incident-free election that month in which the 61-year-old president, in power since 1994, won a fifth term with nearly 84 percent of the vote.
The EU’s foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels Monday, agreed to a permanent lifting of those sanctions, including asset freezes and visa bans, for the president and nearly 170 other regime officials, as well as permitting new trade with three top Belarusian companies. While some restrictions, including an embargo on arms sales, remain in place, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the move cleared the way for deeper ties.
“We are not recognizing a situation that turns from black to pink overnight,” Ms. Mogherini said, but “we have seen over the last couple of years some steps that are encouraging and that we want to try to support and encourage further.”
In addition to freeing some opposition figures and easing political repression, the Lukashenko government has curried favor in the West by hosting the talks aimed at brokering a cease-fire in Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed separatist forces in the country’s eastern half. Chafing at times under Moscow’s dominance, Mr. Lukashenko refused to recognize Mr. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and has declined to host a Russian military base in his country.
EU members in Eastern Europe have been particularly keen to loosen Belarus’ tight embrace of Mr. Putin’s Russia.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters in Brussels this week the partial easing of sanctions was “an experiment.”
“As a neighbor, we are satisfied because we hope that it will improve our neighborly relations” and test whether Minsk “is determined to cooperate with the EU and — above all — with Poland,” according to an account in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
But both Belarus and Russia drew a different conclusion from the move — that coercive Western sanctions don’t work.
“The European Union realized that it is time to abandon this bloc thinking and stop the confrontation with Belarus,” Mr. Lukashenko said Tuesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia viewed the EU move “very positively” and that the change of course “simply demonstrates once again the absolutely senseless nature of sanctions.”
And while many sanctions remain in place, the EU decision could provide a needed financial lifeline to the Belarus economy, which was estimated to have shrunk by 4 percent in 2015 because of falling energy prices and the economic downturn in Russia. The move could mean a surge of Western investment at a time when currency reserves in Belarus have fallen to their lowest point in five years.
While EU officials say they acted because of improvements in Belarus’ human rights record, many in Russia see a more sinister motive. Belarus, they say, has emerged as a key prize to be wooed away from Mr. Putin’s orbit in the zero-sum struggle for influence in the region. Mr. Lukashenko, long derided as “Europe’s last dictator,” is getting an unearned image upgrade.
The human rights argument is “a bunch of baloney,” wrote commentator Marko Marjanovic on Russian Insider, a Web-based news site that says its mission is to counter biased reporting about Russia in the Western media.
“Belarus and Lukashenko are exactly as they always were,” he said. “The real tectonic shift that has caused this EU reversal is the new Cold War between Brussels and Moscow.”