EU sanctions but experts aren’t convinced they’ll work

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a press conference at the EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels on May 24, 2021.

JOHN THYS | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — The EU is pressing ahead with sanctions against Belarus, but experts have argued the penalties are likely to have little impact on the 27-year-old regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus has been making headlines since Sunday when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, following a bomb threat — which later proved to be false. The authorities in the Eastern European country detained journalist Roman Protasevich, who was on board the flight from Greece to Lithuania.

The move has been widely condemned by the West, with Gitanas Nauseda, the President of neighboring Lithuania, describing Belarus’ actions as “state terrorism.” For its part, Belarus has reportedly insisted it did not force the Ryanair plane to land.

“Sanctions alone will not force Lukashenka to leave (power), but they will put additional pressure on him,” Katsiaryna Shmatsina, fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Tuesday.

The EU agreed on Monday to step up existing sanctions against Belarus and implement new economically targeted measures as well. These will be detailed in the coming days. In addition, the EU also agreed to ban Belarusian airlines from entering European airspace and told European airlines to avoid the Belarusian air zone.

Ryhor Astapenia, from the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House, told CNBC’s Street Signs that this last set of measures was a direct response to the decision to intercept the Ryanair plane — and was not designed to damage the Belarusian regime.

My team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible.

“They actually are supposed only to punish Lukashenka for specifically hijacking this airplane, but they are not supposed to do anything with his regime and, frankly speaking, (these measures) don’t pose any threat to his regime,” he said. 

Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won a presidential election last year with 80.23% of the votes, according to election officials and as reported by the BBC. However, the result has been contested by opposition leaders and the EU has said the vote was “neither free nor fair.” Lukashenko has denied these allegations.

Protests emerged in the aftermath of the election, when citizens contesting its outcome clashed with Belarusian forces.

The election, and the violent response to protests that followed, led the EU to implement sanctions in late 2020 against some Belarusian KGB officials, as well as on Lukashenko and his son.

Belarus has long had a close relationship with Russia, and some analysts expect the neighbours to become even tighter following Sunday’s incident and the subsequent action from the EU.

Matthew Sherwood, senior Europe analyst at The Economist Intelligence Unit, noted that Belarus has benefitted from continuing political and economic support from Russia since the last round of sanctions. “We do not expect a new wave of Western sanctions to have any further real impact on the domestic situation, and they are likely to drive Belarus even closer to Russia,” he added on Monday.

A short attention span?

Sunday’s incident “bring(s) Belarus to the spotlight of international attention,” Shmatsina said. She said previous sanctions “were not very targeted and painful.”

Speaking to CNBC on Monday, Franak Viacorka, a senior advisor to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said the EU’s attention span was “very, very short.”

“They watch Belarus today. They watch Belarus tomorrow, but the day after tomorrow, there’ll be other topics,” he said, adding that by then, “Belarus is lost somewhere in other topics.”

Despite this, the EU’s decision to implement new sanctions Monday was welcomed across the Atlantic, and President Joe Biden said the U.S. will look at imposing measures against Belarus too.

“I welcome the news that the European Union has called for targeted economic sanctions and other measures, and have asked my team to develop appropriate options to hold accountable those responsible, in close coordination with the European Union, other allies and partners, and international organizations,” Biden said.


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