Can Europe help pro-democracy Belarusians as Lukashenko tightens grip on power?

People shout slogans during a small protest against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko outside the European Parliament in Brussels, on Sept. 15, 2020.
People shout slogans during a small protest against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko outside the European Parliament in Brussels, on Sept. 15, 2020. Copyright Francisco Seco/Copyright 2020 The AP.All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Alexander Lukashenko has said he will run for re-election as Belarus’s president in 2025, delivering a further blow to the country’s stifled pro-democracy movement.

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The announcement came over the weekend during parliamentary elections. Described as more of a ritual than a democratic vote, Belarusians could choose between only four parties, all loyal to Lukashenko. The ballot was tightly controlled, international observers were not invited and opposition parties were legally barred from running.

It is the first election in the country since the contentious 2020 presidential vote - deemed a sham by the West - that sparked a wave of mass demonstrations and saw a staggering 35,000 protesters arrested.

It ushered in a brutal crackdown on dissent by Lukashenko, who has closed hundreds of independent media outlets and silenced his critics by imprisoning them or forcing them into exile. 

Since then, Lukashenko - who has once more grown closer to Vladimir Putin - has also orchestrated a flow of migrants to the EU’s border, hijacked a Ryanair plane travelling between two EU capitals, and allowed the Russian president to use his territory to invade Ukraine.

The European Union has responded with a raft of sanctions in a bid to suffocate Belarus’ economy and put pressure on the Lukashenko regime. 

But experts tell Euronews that despite the EU’s sanctions and moral backing, Belarus’s opposition is being alienated as Lukashenko continues to cement his authoritarian rule.

Dissidents stripped of citizenship

EU countries are providing sanctuary to more than 200,000 Belarusians who have fled since 2020, most to neighbouring Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

But in an effort to punish exiled dissidents, Lukashenko passed a decree last September ordering embassies not to issue or renew the passports of Belarusians.

It means the thousands of those who fled who have ties to activism, journalism or politics must either return home where they will likely be detained, or face statelessness abroad.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the media after voting, at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko addresses the media after voting, at a polling station in Minsk, Belarus, on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.AP/Belarusian Presidential Press Service

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who continues to be Lukashenko's fiercest challenger despite being wrestled out of the country's political arena, has pitched a bespoke ‘New Belarus’ passport to allow Belarusians with visa and residence permits abroad to gain travel documents without having to return to Minsk.

But the proposal is unprecedented and problematic. 

While some countries such as Lithuania - where some 61,000 Belarusian expats, including Tsikhanouskaya, live - are issuing special travel documents to their Belarusian residents, others, such as the Czech Republic, have banned giving visa and residence permits to Belarusians.

Mistrust of Belarusians has surged since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially since thousands of Wagner mercenaries set up camp in the country after Yevgeny Prigozhin's failed coup last June.

“Some EU countries, by labelling those fleeing Belarus as a national security threat, are now equalising the people with the regime, which is not right,” Pavel Slunkin, policy analyst for the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Euronews. 

"Yes, the bloc needs to carefully monitor those crossing into EU territory with suspected links to the KGB," he said, referring to Belarus's intelligence agency.

“But if we want an alternative Belarus then we must support this exiled community. Otherwise it will disappear and we will just have a state that is completely submissive to Lukashenko, its dictator, as in Russia,” he added.

Sanctions not biting where they should

Sanctions on Belarus following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 initially dealt a devastating blow to the economy, which contracted by a 30-year record of 5%, with sectors such as fertiliser production and wood processing reeling from severed EU ties.

But the Kremlin has helped its faithful ally overcome the initial shock, with Belarus adapting to the loss of export markets better than expected.

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In a joint statement issued last week, the EU said it was ready to slap additional sanctions for the unprecedented repression seen in the run-up to the election.

But analysts now fear sanctions are counter-productive and undermine the West’s image as a bastion of hope for pro-democracy Belarusians.

“People in Belarus are suffering from EU sanctions while they continue to be controlled by the regime,” Slunkin said. “Government officials, on the other hand, are more likely to be able to evade sanctions and continue leading prosperous lives.”

“The EU should consider concrete actions that support the people rather than punishing them,” he added.

Exiled opposition is “futile opposition”

The dilemma of how the EU can support Belarus's exiled opposition has taken on a renewed importance following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which the bloc has blamed on the Kremlin.

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Just four days after Navalny's death, Ihar Lednik, an activist, became the second political detainee to die in prison in Belarus this year. He was serving a three-year sentence for insulting Lukashenko.

Belarusian riot police block demonstrators during an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, on Nov. 15, 2020.
Belarusian riot police block demonstrators during an opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, on Nov. 15, 2020.AP/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.

Slunkin explains that by making life in Belarus impossible for opposition figures such as Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko has completely disengaged his electorate from alternatives to his own rule. It means no degree of EU support can bolster the opposition as long as Lukashenko's repression continues.

“Political activism or activity from exile is not a very efficient thing - you are not connected to your people and you are surrendering power to the regime,” Slunkin explained.

“Even if you support the opposition’s ideas, the regime would punish and torture you if you were to engage with them - the regime therefore has more control over your life,” he added.

Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst, said that with the opposition either imprisoned or expelled, it is now impossible to take the temperature of Belarusian society’s political views.

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“We are now entering an area of social psychology in an authoritarian context,” he explained.

“Until people see a real opposition present in the country, they cannot make an informed choice between Lukashenko and the opposition."

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