As the brutal crackdown on Belarusian pro-democracy protests enters its second month, Cyprus is delaying the introduction of EU sanctions against the Lukashenka regime in Minsk. EU foreign ministers backed sanctions measures including visa bans and asset freezes during a Berlin meeting in late August, but in recent days the move has been stalled by a temporary Cypriot veto. Nicosia is accused of seeking to link the EU’s Belarus response to sanctions against Turkey over a territorial dispute in the eastern Mediterranean.
This delay underlines the lack of urgency that has characterized the underwhelming EU response to the escalating government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Belarus.
Nor are the proposed measures to everyone’s liking. Critics argue that even if implemented, the sanctions targeting around 30 Belarus government officials are insufficient to force a rethink in Minsk. Speaking to the Financial Times on September 6, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius warned that inaction over Belarus undermined the EU’s foreign policy credibility. “The Belarusian people should not feel deserted,” he stated.
Unfortunately, the European Union’s hesitant response to the crisis has indeed left many Belarusians feeling that they are on their own. While there have been the traditional expressions of “grave concern” from numerous European capitals, officials from a number of major EU member states including France, Germany, and Italy have also reportedly argued against targeting the Belarus dictator directly, claiming instead that channels of communication with Lukashenka must be kept open.
Such thinking suggests a failure to grasp the nature of the dictatorship in Belarus. Any communication with Lukashenka requires a common language, and the only language he understands is the language of power.
For now, there is little indication that Lukashenka is taking the possibility of crippling EU sanctions seriously. Far from it, in fact. During a recent interview with the Russian media, he mocked the Baltic states as “obedient dogs” for imposing their own sanctions on Belarus, while claiming that major European powers “do not want to quarrel with us.”
Despite his penchant for bluster and buffoonery, Lukashenka should not be underestimated. He is a wily veteran who had until recently managed to maintain a remarkable geopolitical balancing act between Russia and the EU. He has been dealing with Brussels for over two-and-a-half decades and has seen generations of European politicians come and go.
Based on his own prior experience, the Belarusian dictator now seems confident that the EU will stop short of imposing the kind of sanctions capable of causing serious economic pain or otherwise undermining his grip on the country. This confidence is helping to shape Lukashenka’s defiant and uncompromising response to the protests in Belarus.
Despite the lack of EU support, there is no sign of the pro-democracy uprising in Belarus losing momentum. On September 13, over one hundred thousand Belarusians joined a protest rally in central Minsk, while smaller events also took place in towns and cities across the country. Similar anti-regime rallies have now been staged on five consecutive weekends.
The current wave of protests began just over one month ago on August 9 in response to a presidential election that was marred by the imprisonment of various opposition candidates and large-scale vote rigging.
The Belarusian security forces initially adopted an extremely heavy-handed approach to the protests in an apparent attempt to intimidate the public and crush dissent. However, this tactic backfired disastrously, with widespread anger over police brutality galvanizing opposition to the Lukashenka regime.
According to Belarusian human rights center Viasna, over 10,000 people have been detained by the security forces since protests began, with more than 600 complaints registered relating to the abuse of detainees. So far, five deaths have officially been confirmed, with dozens of people still unaccounted for.
Meanwhile, numerous victims have provided graphic accounts and physical evidence of torture used against protesters. This has radicalized many previously apolitical Belarusians and makes it difficult to imagine a return to the old status quo that had existed prior to this summer’s presidential election campaign.
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