A new mass civic movement has emerged in Belarus – the EU should put supporting it at the heart of its new policy towards the country.
The European Union has not really needed a front-page policy on Belarus since the 1990s. The Belarusian regime has often been isolated and dependent on Russia. Belarus was only a marginal member of the Eastern Partnership policy after 2009. Politics and trade patterns seemed glacial, with only marginal drift towards Europe.
But the EU now needs a Belarus policy, and needs it fast.
This weekend’s presidential election in Belarus has ended not just in fraud, but in egregious theft. It used to be said of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s four previous landslide – and fraudulent – re-elections that he might actually have won a fair race anyway, albeit by excluding powerful rivals and making one-third of voters vote early, heavily supervised. This is not true this time. Some polling stations have actually posted what look like real results, with the main opposition challenger Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya polling around 70 per cent.
This time, Lukashenka miscalculated: the excluded candidates all backed Tsikhanovskaya in a huge civic campaign with no programme other than ending the Lukashenka era by holding a second set of free and fair elections as soon as possible. Tsikhanovskaya and two other women representing this year’s excluded candidates, the wife of Valerii Tsapkala and Viktar Babaryka’s campaign manager Mariya Kalesnikava, drew huge crowds wherever they went. The campaign dominated social media. No one therefore believes the official figures: 80 per cent for Lukashenka versus 10 per cent for Tsikhanovskaya on an 84 per cent turnout.
Lukashenka’s internal police forces are much stronger than in other post-Soviet states. This is not like Ukraine in 2014 or Armenia in 2018
This unprecedented popular mobilisation has crashed against regime intransigence. Post-election protests have spread throughout the country, and barricades have appeared in some cities. But Lukashenka has delivered on threats of coercion; and his internal police forces are much stronger than in other post-Soviet states. This is not like Ukraine in 2014 or Armenia in 2018. Police have used extreme and often random violence, rubber bullets, and stun grenades; some protestors have resorted to throwing Molotov cocktails. Moreover, the cumulative repression this time during the campaign and after the vote easily matches and surpasses (even though long prison sentences have yet to be handed down) the level of repression that prompted the EU to impose sanctions after the 2010 election. These sanctions were only lifted in 2016.
Moreover, post-election repression is only likely to escalate. Two people were already reported dead in the first two days of protests. Hundreds have been arrested and may lose their jobs. Internet access has been cut and the free media is under threat. After filing a complaint against the vote, Tsikhanovskaya has fled to Lithuania after reported threats against her family and campaign staff, and being forced to make a ‘hostage video’ calling for calm.
A general strike is mooted. For the moment, the regime seems united behind the repression; there are only a few signs of restraint at a local level. There could therefore be a prolonged period of suppression of human rights, like Poland after 1980. Russia may exploit Lukashenka’s isolation or step in to complete the job of repression. Vladimir Putin has congratulated Lukashenka on his ‘victory’, but many other Russians have been critical. Russia is keeping its options open.
The United States under Donald Trump will do nothing, although Joe Biden’s statement at least recognises that this will be a long-term crisis.
The EU high representative Josep Borrell and neighbourhood and enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi have condemned ”disproportionate and unacceptable state violence against peaceful protesters”. But this is not the time for ritual condemnation and ‘monitoring the situation’. Europe People’s Party head Donald Tusk has said: “Belarusians, yesterday you made a choice: democracy, freedom and the end of the dictatorship. We admire your courage and determination. All the peoples of Europe and the world are on your side”. But that should mean substantive support.
The EU needs to develop a new policy that goes beyond the old binary choice of support for the marginalised, pro-EU opposition and the tentative dialogue with the regime that it tried after 2016.
There were pragmatic elements in the old government that were removed in June. But the new authorities are discredited and incapable of sustaining a dialogue. There is now a new opposition; a mass civic movement. Helping it to survive should be the main task over the coming months. It will face unprecedented physical, legal, economic, and media harassment. The EU must quickly put support policies in place. The regime could also buckle under the pressure – and the EU should plan for this less likely outcome too.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.