What is the reason for the EU sanctions, how is the current sanctions regime different from all the previous ones, and what is the purpose of the sanctions. A big conversation about European sanctions with Clara Portela, professor at the University of Valencia and former senior analyst at the EU Institute for Security Studies (EU ISS).
How effective was the previous edition of sanctions against Belarus in 2008-2011?
Well, they’ve actually started a little bit earlier. They have escalated in 2008 but they have been around before. In 2004 there were already sanction. It basically consisted of visa bans, an asset freeze, arms embargo that was later added. But the strategy of the EU was to respond to the increasing authoritarianism. The elections were not free and fair. It used the strategy of expanding blacklists, so it’s started with a few individuals on the blacklist, and then every time the crisis aggravated, they included more and more individuals. It took a while until they blacklisted Lukashenko because the strategy was to use the blacklist in order to communicate the threat to the leadership. That if thing wouldn’t improve, if the country wouldn’t guarantee freedoms, wouldn’t open up towards democracy, then more and more important individuals would be targeted. So, altogether, the sanctions didn’t include any economic elements. It is also important to mention that it was his second sanctions regime. We define sanctions regimes depending on the objective, and one of them was the protection of democratic principles and human rights in Belarus. And then there was another one prompted by the disappearance of three members of parliament and one journalist. This was separate. It was related to the situation with the rule of law, and protection of human rights and democratic principles. But it was a separate sanctions regime. It was imposed because there has been no investigation, and there have been no attempts to bring those responsible to justice in this specific case. So, when the sanctions regime was phased out that addressed the democratic backsliding in the country, the other sanctions regime – the one that was imposed because the had been no attempt to bring to justice those responsible for the disappearance of these 4 individuals – that one remained in force. So, sanctions on Belarus have never completely disappeared. This was the first sanctions regime.
Was it different from new sanctions?
Yes, the second sanctions regime was implemented in the phase that started with repression that started last summer after the August election. This followed, again, the principle of protecting of democratic principles and averting or mitigating the democratic backsliding. It was very much focused against the repressions against peaceful demonstrations. It took the EU quite a while to react, because we all know what happened, because there was a difficult situation in the country, because there was one country trying to negotiate the tightening of another sanctions regime that had nothing to do with the situation in Belarus. So, there was actually an agreement among member states that sanctions should be imposed, because the repression was so scandalous and because the EU had already reacted negatively to the situation of democratic backsliding, it reacted much more forcefully so there were many more people included already in the first blacklist and then this kept escalating. Now, the thing is, the breakthrough came with the Ryanair incident – the forced landing of that flight that was going from Athens to the Baltic states in order to detain an activist. This prompted the EU to take a more serious set of measures. In this case it was no longer about supporting the opposition, or trying to stop the repression or the intensity of repression. This was about security of the EU citizens themselves. It was an Irish aircraft that was flying from one EU capital – Athens – to another EU member which was one of the Baltic countries. This is something that affects more directly the citizens of the EU itself. Together with the continuation of the repression campaign this provided an incentive for the EU to start opting for some economic measures. And this is how the potassium and chemical sanctions came about. And at the same time because there’s been that aviation incident the measures were adopted with the aim to penalize the aviation sector as far as Belarus is concerned. And not just to penalize but also to avoid similar incidents in the future. The idea was that if we don’t accept planes from Belarus anymore and our planes are invited to take alternative routes, so they won’t need to overflight the airspace of Belarus. So, it had two sides to it. One is to respond to that incident by affecting specifically that sector. But then the idea was also to try to prevent similar incidents in the future.
And what about the migration crisis? Did it become a reason for strengthening sanctions?
First of all, the response to the attempts to flying migrants to Belarus to make them to then cross the border to Poland. This is essentially quite a novelty in the strategy of the leadership of Belarus. In the past the authorities weren’t happy with sanctions but they didn’t try to take any actions in order to respond to them. They simply accepted them, they complained about them but they didn’t take any action in order to, let’s say, counterattack. But this time it has been different. I can see parallel to the behavior of the Russian Federation to the sanctions that were imposed by Western partners because they actually used similar tools. They did not simply accept them and condemn them but they also took some actions to respond with unorthodox means. So, the response coming from Poland has actually been taken more on a national level because they have reinforced the security of the border with Belarus and this has been taken primarily by using national measures. There was a Frontex element to it but the response has been mostly taken without resorting to sanctions. But at the same time this is definitely not making things better as far as the readiness of the Council is concerned to intensify sanctions. Obviously, Poland is one of the most influential members among the 2004-2007 enlargement of the EU. Increasing the hostility vis-a-vis Poland resulted in Poland pushing for more sanctions or a stronger stance vis-a-vis the behavior of Belarus authorities. While in the past, in the previous sanctions regime, Poland together with other countries in the region had tried to be more conciliatory vis-a-vis Belarus because being a neighboring country they were interested in improving relations, they didn’t want to make things worse. But precisely now that there has been this counterreaction coming from the Belarusian side, there is no space for conciliatory steps. The level of hostility is increasing. This means that Poland is not only not going to try to mitigate sanctions measures, but this actually increases their readiness to push for more severe measures. Even if this entails some economic costs.
In September 2020 French President Macron in his interview to Le Journal du Dimanche said that sanctions accompanied by other measures will bring down the regime. This and other rhetorical steps are usually used by the opponents of sanctions when they say sanctions should be removed because there’s no chance sanctions will bring down Lukashenko. What do you think about this argument? Was this argument that the aim of sanctions is to bring down the Lukashenko regime articulated officially?
First of all, within the Council of the EU we are talking about 27 members coming from different regions with different security concerns and with different foreign policy priorities, so it is absolutely normal that withing the Council you have the diversity of opinions. Still, the ability shows there’s a certain level of unity as far as the response to repression or civilian demonstration is concerned. There’s nothing surprising that you have different opinions being voiced publicly by different leader. What matters is that in the end everybody is still able to agree to a common position and to measures that apply to everybody. The attitude of the EU is not that the sanctions should punish but the sanctions should provide the incentive for mitigate or stop or at least refuse the sort of behavior they are condemning. I thing in the case of Belarus nobody believes that by simply imposing a number of measures there’s going to be a democratic transition in Belarus in the sense that Lukashenko and his ministers are simply going to decide one day to relinquish power. When people hear sanctions, they equate the notion of sanctions to an economic blockade such as the one imposed by the US and other Central American countries on the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo regime in the Cold War period. It was a full economic blockade, it destroyed the economy of the Dominican Republic. What the EU wants to do with Belarus, and it goes for other countries, there’s no illusion that by imposing sanctions they can put an end to Lukashenko’s rule. What they are going to do with the sanctions is to support the opposition, peaceful demonstrators, civil society and to provide a deterrent for the continued repression of these demonstrators. They want the repression to stop. The idea is if this is happening and the EU doesn’t do anything about it the authorities feel legitimized to continue with it. There is no price they have to pay for torturing, kidnapping, incarcerating or beating demonstrators. But the moment you impose sanctions this shows that this is strongly condemned and if the repression continues then pressure is going to be stepped up. So the sanctions that the EU imposed are actually meant to provide a disincentive for the continuation of the repression. If the repression stops and those political opponents and demonstrators who have been detained are released, then the EU will be satisfied. It will not be completely happy because everyone in the EU would like to see a democratic transition in Belarus. But still they are prepared to live with a non-democratic government as long as there’s no violence against peaceful demonstrators and civil society and as long as opposition members can live and operate freely. So in reality the situation is very close to the possibility of the replacement of Lukashenko by the democratically elected regime. Because if the EU guarantee all these democratic freedoms and all these civil liberties, then they show that the regime might be numbered. This is precisely what the regime wants to avoid. But at the same time if the regime wants to get rid of the sanctions it could achieve that by stopping the repressions and releasing all political prisoners.
Now the individuals who got on the sanctions list transfer their companies, their properties to their wives, their sons, other relatives, split, rename and restructure them. Do you think these measures are effective in avoiding sanctions?
Well, they might be effective, or might have some limited effectiveness, certainly. But in reality, they will not eventually succeed. Because first of all as soon as the EU government are monitoring what’s going on in the country, they will know this and they will blacklist the new owners. So, it is not set in stone that those on the lists will not be joined by anyone else. And secondly, if you look at finance, those individuals who are closely connected to individuals who are blacklisted they would face difficulties. They would face difficulties in operating in the financial system, so it will be difficult for them to borrow, to operate, to make financial transfers, or to receive funds because banks are generally unwilling to transact with people who are closely associated to those on the list. So if you are a son or a husband of somebody who is on the list, you are not likely to be able to do many things. If you look at the text of the resolution, at the wording of the EU legislation, it is already included under the circle of people who might be blacklisted those closely associated to those who are responsible for the repression and violation of human rights. So it is already foreseen in the legislation that you do not only blacklist those who are directly responsible, but you could also blacklist those who are closely associated. There is little hope that will work.
Do you think, sanctions will have effect?
I think that generally it is misunderstood what sanction are supposed to do and what the EU expects to achieve with its sanctions. And it is also misunderstood how the EU employs these measures. First of all, the real question is not whether sanctions work, the real question is whether sanctions are a useful instrument in order to support your strategy or your objectives. Sanctions are not a cure in itself, they are only an instrument so we cannot blame sanctions for not working. What is not working is not sanctions but the strategy. If we look at the objectives, as I’ve already said, I don’t believe that anyone expects that there is going to be a democratic transition in Belarus simply because the EU has banned the import of fertilizers. I mean, sorry, this would be wishful thinking. What the EU wants to do is to respond to the situation that it considers unacceptable and it wants to create some pressure on the authorities to stop their repression so they think twice before they continue with the repression. And ideally, they should not only phase out the repression, but also release those people who have been detained and certainly stop torture. There might be a democratic transition down the line but this is not something that the EU believes can be achieved by prohibiting 70 individuals from travelling to the EU and receiving payments from the EU and by banning the import of fertilizers. That’s not the thinking. The sanctions should not be judged on whether Lukashenko is stepping down or not stepping down because that’s really the false calculation. And thirdly, the reason why the measures are limited or modest is that the EU doesn’t want to create any economic crisis in Belarus, it doesn’t want the economy to collapse. That’s why it doesn’t impose a full embargo on Belarus or on Russia. It simply makes use of specific measures in order to create a limited but significant pressure. That’s the maximum objective. And it definitely wants to use measures that can be escalated if the situation gets worse, or can be removed or phased out step by step if the situation improves. The EU will not want to use all the possible means at once, it wants to have the possibility of scaling up and scaling down in order to be more responsive to the behavior of the authorities.