Lukashenko has so far perceived Brussels as a toothless tiger, good at ideological debates but not necessarily in a geopolitical game. Everything has changed following Thursday’s EU summit. The EU sanctions are radical – Belarus has been subject to sectoral restrictions in the most crucial areas for exports, without which it is impossible to keep a shaky budget in check. However, Lukashenko intends to get around them. Additionally, despite pressure from the EU, the Kremlin will continue to supply Belarus with money, treating it as a „bad credit” bank that must not collapse.
Is Kremlin satisfied with the sanctions against Belarus?
So far, the EU has mainly applied personal sanctions. In 4 tranches, assets were frozen and 166 natural and 15 legal persons were banned from entry. However, they were directed at the nature of the regime rather than targeting its core. They would show the sociological profile of people directly involved with Lukashenko and the regime’s „system base.” EU documents state the date of birth, origin, and function of the person who is subject to restrictions. This allows painting a sociological portrait of the budget-fed middle class supporting the regime.
When analyzing them carefully, one can see that it is not the so-called vata, i.e. a post-Soviet nomenclature that comes from the east of the country and speaks only Russian. Judges, prosecutors and representatives of the power ministries (Ministry of the Interior, services and militia) are most often middle-aged people, educated after the collapse of the USSR and in many cases coming from the cities in the west of the country (bordering Poland, such as Brest or Grodno). These people do not quite fit the profile of a vatnik, an uncritical believer in the Russian vision that would bring the resurrection of the Soviet Union and the neo-homosovieticus. One of the youngest service officers to be added to the EU sanctions list, Artyom Konstantinovich, Senior Special Affairs Officer at the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, was born in 1990. In turn, the president of one of the district courts in Minsk – Alyaksandr Pietrasz – was born in 1988.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka could have expected the EU’s reaction to the grounding of a Ryanair plane and the detention of blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega to be more decisive this time. And that’s exactly what happened.
The sanctions hit the major sectors of the Belarusian economy, whose exports fed the national budget. In turn, without stable income in the state treasury, Minsk becomes a hostage of Moscow, and at the same time – as Stefan Hedlund from the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden puts it – a „bad credit,” which must be rolled up so that the one taking it does not go bankrupt, and the lender does not lose more than they had invested. By being subject to sanctions and taking out more loans, Belarus is seamlessly rolling down the slope towards becoming a failing state. A country with a system of power that has exhausted itself and is legitimized by force alone, which allows it to endure and collapse for years on end.
After another EU sanctions package entered into force on June 25, Brussels struck a blow to two key sectors of the Belarusian economy, namely, the oil and chemical sectors. At the Thursday summit, it was decided to restrict imports of Belarusian potassium chloride. The pearls of the Belarusian economy. i.e. the state-owned Belaruśkalij and Grodno Azot, for whose acquisition the Russians have been salivating for a long time, will lose their shirts. Under the sanctions regime, it will be easier to try to take over the plants. The first company supplies 20% of the world’s demand for potassium fertilizers and is a serious competitor to Western companies. Oligarchs close to the Kremlin have long sought to take over both enterprises. The first plant is in a much better position – it exports mainly to South America and Asia. The other will have to look for new outlets.
The sanctions also applied to petroleum products. Thus, the Cuban model was questioned, which consisted of Belarus buying cheap Russian oil, processing it in local refineries and re-exporting it abroad at an inflated price (just as the USSR supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba during the Cold War). In this case, sanctions also work in Russia’s favor. Hitting Minsk through its oil industry caused most of its exports to be redirected to Russian ports. To understand the meaning and significance of this step, it is worth going back to 2020.
In February last year, the then head of US diplomacy, Mike Pompeo, visited Minsk. He stated that Belarus does not have to take a position on either side between East and West. He also offered cheap oil supplies that could be processed in Belarusian refineries and re-exported e.g. through Lithuanian ports. The declaration was in line with the policy of diversification pursued by Lukashenko, i.e. purchasing gas in Saudi Arabia, Norway, Venezuela and Iran. The more diversification, the weaker Russia’s ability to put pressure on Minsk, and the greater the area of actual sovereignty. In this sense, Thursday’s EU decision on sanctions narrows the room for maneuver.
Several solutions have also been adopted, which would affect the Belarusian tobacco industry and the banks operating in Belarus. The supply of dual-use products, which were used by the arms industry, and the sale of remote surveillance technologies were also blocked. However, these areas are of secondary importance compared to the impact on the chemical and fuel sectors.
Lukashenko wants to cheat destiny
Operationally, it is quite realistic that Lukashenko would start looking for a pattern of re-export of processed oil through a chain of companies that will at least formally provide a “back story” as to the product’s country of origin. Similarly, Poland, the Baltic states and Ukraine buy Diesel fuel from Russian Rosneft, which is subject to EU and US sanctions. In this case, the Azerbaijani Socar is the intermediary. In the case of Ukraine, the Swiss office of the Socar Trading concern is responsible for sales. The contractor on the Ukrainian side is Proton Energy Group, which also carried out large-scale financial embezzlement and with which the Ukrainian oligarch – Viktor Medvedchuk (privately an acquaintance of Vladimir Putin) was affiliated. Diesel fuel and LPG were delivered to Ukraine from the Belarusian Gomel. Now Minsk may ask Kyiv to reciprocate, especially since Ukraine is not likely to join EU sanctions in fuel trade. Kyiv’s relations with Minsk are not subject to the logic of Belarus-EU relations.
The fact that the model of searching for intermediaries is being considered may be confirmed by Lukashenko’s announcement that he would introduce what he calls the economical „martial law.” This would involve introducing people from the power ministries to key chemical and oil plants. One cannot rule out that it may be representatives of secret services and the army who specialize in circumventing international restrictions, i.e. those entities that supervise the (usually illegal) trade in Belarusian arms.
In the context of the latest sanctions package, the attempted blackmail on the part of Minsk, consisting of unequivocal announcements of opening the Belarusian-EU border to smuggling goods and illegal immigrants, is also relevant. Lithuania, which, next to Poland, is one of the EU countries most involved in supporting the Belarusian opposition, has announced that it is considering building a fence on the border with Belarus.
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Head of the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, describes immigrants as Lukashenko’s hybrid weapon in the fight against Western sanctions. He also argues that special connections with Baghdad and Istanbul have been set up for this purpose, and the whole procedure is supervised by Centrkurort. Radio Swoboda reports that Boeing 777s from Iraqi airlines regularly land at the capital’s airport with immigrants to the EU on board.
Belarusian military district
Critics of radical sanctions against Belarus argue that the narrowing of Lukashenko’s room for maneuver will lead to increased pressure from Moscow to enforce close military cooperation.
According to Andrei Paratnikau, Head of the Belarus Security Blog project, this view is unfounded, because today both the Belarusian armed forces and secret service are part of the Russian security system, somewhat similar to a military district of the Russian Federation. Even if Lukashenko does not agree to the construction of permanent Russian bases, Russia successfully copies the American model in Belarus from NATO’s eastern flank – it maintains a permanent and rotating presence of soldiers without the need to build barracks.
The control package in the form of its military presence and possible economic pressures is already effective today. This is evidenced by the recent meeting of the Russian and Belarussian heads of their Ministries of Foreign Affairs in mid-June. At the press conference, Sergei Lavrov and Vladimir Makei presented a joint communiqué on how they perceive military threats and how they intend to prevent them.
Another argument in favor of radical solutions is the reports from Belarus, which show that, in fear of sanctions, the authorities transferred both Protasevich and Sapega to house arrest. Opponents of this thesis, however, argue that the blogger has already played the role the security apparatus assigned for him. He confessed his guilt in front of the cameras and told about how he had conspired with Western intelligence services against Belarus. Keeping him behind bars any longer might simply be pointless. Placing him under house arrest, however, is a cost-free gesture towards the West, which Minsk may try to discount in the future.
Given the entire picture, it can be concluded that the radical variant of EU sanctions seems logical, even though it does not have a clear geopolitical effect. The dictator who grounded the plane from Athens to Vilnius and who had previously pacified the opposition movement using his repression apparatus, could not hope for any other treatment. Earlier EU sanctions against the named officials of the regime made life difficult for Lukashenko’s „base.” However, they did not play a significant role in undermining the regime. Further simulating an attack on Lukashenko would deprive the European Union of its authority, already rickety in the East. Sectoral sanctions are of a different caliber, which might cost the Belarusian budget and the kleptocrats involved with the president around a billion dollars a year. So they will feel the sanctions hitting their wallets, at least until they learn how to work around them.
The Polish version is available here.
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