Over the past three years, Western policy towards Belarus has rested on several pillars: sanctions, isolating and denying recognition to the Lukashenka regime, and standing in solidarity with the broad anti-regime sectors of society.  

This policy seems morally consistent, but it’s not working. The Kremlin is gradually incorporating Belarus and fashioning it into a weapon for use against Ukraine and others. Lukashenka continues to commit horrendous human rights crimes, the democratic movement within the country is suppressed, and the number of political prisoners in Belarus per capita is among the highest in the world

What then is the problem with the Western policy toolkit? 

Let’s take sanctions. Lukashenka deserved sanctions and the West did indeed make Belarus one of the most sanctioned countries on the planet. But there are no indicators that these are prompting a positive change in Lukashenka’s policies. Moreover, the Belarusian economy is growing, raising doubts about whether the West truly possesses effective leverage to pressure the regime. 

The non-recognition of Lukashenka also looks concerning. Just like the imposition of sanctions, attempts to isolate the regime have been accompanied by wavering steps: there have been phone calls to Lukashenka, and de facto recognition by several Western or pro-Western states like Switzerland, Hungary, Israel, Japan, and others; but also statements of non-recognition of the country’s rigged elections, and refusals by some states to issue credentials to Lukashenka. The message is inconsistent and it’s now clear that Lukashenka can live with it, aware that the West is fundamentally unable to construct a system of isolation around his regime. 

Displays of solidarity with Belarusian society appear to be the most successful, albeit not without flaws. The West does genuinely assist the democratic movement, NGOs, and independent media. However, the Belarusian opposition still has to spend plenty of time fighting discriminatory practices towards Belarusians in the West, and obtaining visas to Western countries remains a formidable quest for ordinary people. In practice, this hampers the appeal of the West in Belarus. 

One possibly inevitable problem is that Western policymakers are paying less attention to Belarus due to the exigencies of Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine, as well as the perception that making a difference in Belarus is hard. This further limits the potential of Western policy. Given the limited political, financial, and diplomatic resources allocated by the West for Belarus policy, it is simply impossible to effect any meaningful change, regardless of strategy.

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It would be a mistake to overlook Belarus, not only for humanitarian reasons but also because it plays a significant role in regional security. Any post-war security architecture must involve the removal of all Russian military assets from Belarus, including nuclear weapons. Without this, Ukraine and Belarus’ neighboring NATO and European Union (EU) member states will constantly be compelled to address the risk.  

Given the iron grip of Lukashenka’s security forces and their Russian associates, the notion of freeing Belarus from Russia’s influence and democratizing its political system may appear mere rhetoric or complete nonsense. It does seem highly improbable given the current circumstances. The solution lies in bolstering the West’s influence on Belarus and working towards these ultimate goals in shorter phases.  

There are no quick fixes, but a combination of pressure and incentives can have an effect. 

One route is to lift sanctions in non-Russia-related sectors of the economy if Lukashenka responds with concessions to help Ukraine’s security, slow Belarus’s incorporation into Russia, and ease repression. Simultaneously, the West must rededicate itself to the Belarusian democratic movement, civil society organizations, and independent media to demonstrate its commitment to its values. 

There are two more things that are crucial. 

Lukashenka’s recent health problems (he is 69 in two months’ time) have served as a wake-up call, highlighting the inevitability of a transition of power in Belarus. If the West desires influence over the succession, it should establish communications with Belarus’s ruling class. 

The West must also actively demonstrate its appreciation for ordinary Belarusians and convey the belief that Belarus has a European future. Granting visas to Belarusian citizens, enabling them to freely study and work in the EU, is very important. At Chatham House Belarus polls have shown, nurturing interpersonal connections will contribute to cultivating pro-Western sentiment within Belarusian society. Vague statements about potential support for economic change should be replaced with more concrete plans for the country’s transformation and, potentially, EU membership. 

Critical years lie ahead. It is essential to construct an ambitious and comprehensive toolkit that can assist Belarus to find its place within the Western sphere. While this may seem overly ambitious, the alternative poses concerns not only for the future of Belarus but also for regional security. 

Dr. Ryhor Astapenia is an academy associate and director of the Belarus Initiative in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He is also the founder of the Centre for New Ideas, a think tank promoting democratic reforms in Belarus.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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