The wave of flight bans with which the EU and Ukraine have retaliated against Belarusian dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka kidnapping an opposition journalist in mid-air is but “flightwashing,” warn Belarusian activists. The measures have created an iron curtain for ordinary Belarusians, with families being split up by the impermeable border. Fortunately, there exist other options to truly impact the ruler of “Europe’s North Korea.”
After Alyaksandr Lukashenka once again rigged the election in 2020 which officially gave him a sweeping victory into his sixth consecutive term, the Belarusians launched an unprecedented protest. Although street rallies were brutally suppressed, the cultural, virtual, and sporadic actions are far from over, taking part in Belarus every day for 10 months in a row. New political prisoners come each day along with severe beatings and, very likely, killings by Belarusian police.
A new wave of international outrage arose after Lukashenka used his fighter jet to force a Ryanair plane to land on Belarusian territory in order to arrest one of the main Belarusian opposition journalists, Roman Protasevich. In response, the EU quickly introduced a ban on flights to and from Belarus, and Ukraine joined it.
However, human rights experts and Belarusian activists claim the decision hits ordinary Belarusians rather than the regime and is merely for show. There are options for real sanctions and policies that can severely impact Lukashenka’s dictatorship in the heart of Europe but also cost Ukraine and the EU more.
Nobody has a clear recipe on how to stop Lukashenka’s repressive regime instantly. Belarusian writer Andrei Khadanovich highlights that Belarusian protests are exclusively peaceful, will remain as such, and will inevitably lead to victory sooner or later.
- Read also: Discover Belarus, “the country of nine million hostages,” with Belarusian writer Andrei Khadanovich
Human rights activist Palina Brodik explains that the scenario of violently removing Lukashenka from power has no chance of success in Belarus:
“Even if millions of Belarusians take to the streets to throw Molotov cocktails into government buildings, Lukashenka will retaliate with tanks and an army from Russia will come to support him.”
Palina Brodik is Belarusian by origin but since 2015 has worked in Ukraine as a human rights activist, first in the Center for Civil Liberties, where she worked on a campaign to help Ukrainian political prisoners of the Kremlin. Now she also heads the Free Belarus Center in Kyiv, which was set up almost a year ago to help political migrants coming from Belarus to Ukraine.
At the same time, it is essential to provide all possible support to Belarusian activists both left in Belarus and currently residing in the EU and Ukraine, considering all the repressions that continue in the North Korea of Europe:
“In May, seven more politicians and bloggers were imprisoned for 4-7 years [in Belarus], Tut.by and Belsat media were destroyed, 24 more journalists were arrested, a passenger plane was hijacked and journalist Roman Protasevich was abducted. Also, activist Vitold Ashurok died in a colony under vague circumstances. Lukashenka has passed a series of dictatorial laws that allow security forces to shoot at citizens in protests, ban journalists from working at those rallies, and prohibit citizens to crowdfund money for fines received for participating in rallies, ” the organizers of the rally “Stop sponsoring Alyaxander Lukashenka’s state terrorism!” said, summarizing the situation.
Ineffective ban on flights
Ukrainian human rights activist Volodymyr Yavorskyi stresses that the recently introduced ban on flights to and from Belarus is predominantly for show, rather than truly influential. Belarusians Andrei Khadanovich and Palina Brodik are even more radical in their criticism of this measure:
“It’s easy… to simply block the Belarusian airlines from flying. Of course, the Belarusian regime will block Western airlines in response, and an iron curtain will simply be created around Belarus , just as in Soviet times. Is this what the Belarusians expect today? They are divided by borders: parents are abroad and children are in Belarus, or children are abroad and parents are in Belarus … It seems to me that this will be a tough step that will deal a blow not as much to the authorities as to ordinary people. But of course, it is worth thinking about various sanctions, ” Khadanovich says.
Brodik concurs, highlighting that Ukraine and the EU certainly had to restrict transit flights to Belarus, but a few direct ones should have been left for Belarusians to escape:
“Since there was no visa regime between Ukraine and Belarus, Ukraine was the most attractive rescue country so that people could leave Belarus quickly if they were politically persecuted. And now, unfortunately, Ukraine has stopped this humanitarian mission because people no longer have the opportunity to leave Belarus quickly. In Russia, of course, they cannot feel safe, because there is an agreement between Belarus and Russia, and anyone is blacklisted in Belarus is immediately blacklisted in Russia. Therefore, Ukraine would do the right thing by leaving direct flights from Minsk to Kyiv and, possibly, to Odesa and Lviv, just so that people can have the opportunity to leave the country if necessary. And not only for Belarusians, but also for Ukrainians living in Belarus.”
Since December 2020, according to Lukashenka’s order, Belarusians have been essentially sealed inside the country. There exist few official reasons allowing Belarusians to cross into Ukraine or the EU by land, writes Belarussian portal Tut.by. This list of reasons includes medical needs, official business trips, death of close relatives abroad, or education. These non-essential travel reasons were not applicable to the majority of Belarusians who needed to escape from the regime crackdown. While leaving Belarus by air was not so strictly regulated, it is now completely closed.
What measures could work
1. The most effective, but at the same time the most expensive, measures for western countries are sectoral economic sanctions , all experts agreed. The EU is currently considering sanctioning Belarus’ big potash exports as well as its oil and financial sectors, albeit no final decision has been reached yet. Ukraine also started talks but no decision has been made yet.
Belarusian activists worry that economic sanctions applied by the EU and Ukraine may be more declarative than real. For example, Ukraine has already banned electricity imports from Belarus, albeit only until 1 October, after which begins the season when electricity is in higher demand. Whether the government will prolong this ban after October remains an open question.
However, there exists ample room for further maneuvers to put pressure on Lukashenka.
Ukraine, for example, actively imports Belarusian diesel, petrol, and bitumen. This accounts for more than 70% of the $863.7 million total annual imports from Belarus to Ukraine. In comparison, Ukrainian exports to Belarus amount only to $306 million, which means bilateral sanctions will harm Belarus much more than Ukraine.
On 31 May 2021, Ukrainian manufacturers and importers of petrol and diesel had a consultation in the Cabinet and stated that they can organize alternative imports to Ukraine within 10 days, which means tough sanctions against Belarus can be applied with relatively small losses for Ukraine. The political decision now lies in Zelenskyy’s hands.
2. A no less important measure is to take care of the people fleeing the country because of repressions . In Poland and Lithuania, for example, scholarship programs for students and humanitarian visas for other Belarusians are opening. But more support is still needed from the EU and Ukraine.
“ It is certainly a paradoxical situation that in 2021 Belarus faced the problem of refugees. Although the Belarusians themselves rarely use this word, saying that they are just relocating for a short period, as if for a short business trip. But we are really talking about Belarusian refugees. There are many Belarusian refugees in Ukraine for whom conditions should be improved. Belarusians in Ukraine do not need a visa, unlike in the EU, but they can only stay in the country for six months and have a small opportunity to get a job if they are not highly qualified specialists ,” Brodik explains.
Palina Brodik during the rally “Stop sponsoring Alyaxander Lukashenka’s state terrorism!”. Source: Brodik’s Facebook
Khadanovich, Brodik, and Yavorskyi name measures that should be applied both by Ukraine and the EU to help Belarusian refugees:
- allow entry without a PCR test;
- liberalize the visa regime for Belarusians entering the EU;
- prolong residence permits for Belarusians entering Ukraine;
- help with employment and enrollment in universities for Belarusian refugees.
3. The other measure that Ukraine needs to apply, according to Brodik, is to officially stop law enforcement cooperation between Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) and Police, and their Belarusian counterparts. The cooperation lasted for years to detain criminals, but now turns against politically persecuted Belarusians who fled to Ukraine. Ukrainian law enforcement officers regularly receive petitions from the Belarusian KGB to extradite refugees. Some officers have tried to follow previously established procedures. Although stopped by public outrage, this cooperation should officially cease to exist.
4. Last but not least – political pressure . This includes official recognition of Lukashenka as a self-proclaimed dictator, and further limitation of diplomatic contacts and other measures that were already proposed but not yet fully applied by the EU and Ukraine. Lukashenka’s contendor Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya, widely believed to have won the 2020 presidential election in Belarus, called for the exclusion of Belarus from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and suspension of membership in Interpol.
Nobody has a clear recipe of how to achieve quick victory in Belarus. However, strong pressure on Lukashenka is a must, not just to save currently struggling and persecuted Belarusians, but also to preserve European security. Brodik summarizes:
“I think that no one has a clear answer on how to achieve victory, neither the Belarusian opposition, nor the leaders of Western countries, because everything is quite unpredictable. And, of course, the internal affairs of Belarus are its internal affairs and no one will interfere there until some serious hostilities or mass genocide begins. But it is important to put pressure, and we would not like the international community to forget that Belarus is still in the same situation it was in August 2020. Nothing has changed and the situation has only worsened. And most importantly, Belarus is not in a vacuum. Even if the borders are closed, such measures will not save the surrounding countries, including Ukraine. Belarus in its current state is a constant danger, first of all for Ukraine, which has a 1084-kilometer border with Belarus, but also for the EU.”
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