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Freeze Belarus sanctions, but don’t leave civil society out in the cold

The not-exactly democratic, but this time peaceful, reelection of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko this weekend was followed by an expected announcement that EU sanctions will be suspended for four months writes Maryna Rakhlei . Even if the West has many reasons to attempt a pragmatic mending of its relations with Minsk, it should be careful not to unwittingly help silence remaining independent voices.

“The West has finally realized that its sanctions against Belarus are detrimental!” This was the take from the victorious Belarusian state media on Monday. Since political prisoners were pardoned in August, Minsk has expected the EU to make the next overture toward normalization by loosening sanctions. And the EU did so right after presidential elections on October 11, with EU foreign ministers announcing they had found consensus on the plan in the Foreign Affairs Council meeting Monday in Luxembourg.

Both EU foreign ministers and the U.S. State Department cited OSCE observers’ assessment that elections fell short of democratic standards, but at the same time expressed satisfaction that everything had proceeded peacefully and without obvious repression. The electoral campaign itself was drowsy, with very low public interest and minimal engagement on the part of activists and youth.

Apathy and silent consent to the status quo is not surprising. The shockwaves of the war in Ukraine and economic havoc in Russia left deep impressions on Belarusians, seeing Lukashenko as the father of the nation who managed to deter Russian tanks.

The political independence of Minsk has also always known its limits. As free as Lukashenko may seem in his comments on Crimea being Ukrainian or his peace-making efforts in Ukraine, he is careful not to jeopardize the strategic partnership with Moscow and its cheap, long-term loans, gas, and oil.

Yet, in the wake of the intensified influence of Russia in post-Soviet space, Belarus has been attempting to mend its ties with the West. Diplomats and officials from the United States and EU countries could walk their beats in Belarus; Minsk has become a household name in the Ukraine peace-making process.

Belarus is trying to master a balancing act between the open (in every sense) arms of Mother Russia and skeptical Western countries, between not-too-much-Russia and not-too-much-West-not-to-irritate-Russia. For this reason, Lukashenko has publicly opposed Russian plans to establish an airbase in Belarus. At the same time, he has also sworn to fight for the Russian brothers through all means available.

Writer Svetlana Alexievich, the recent Nobel Prize laureate from Belarus, warns the West that appeasement works only as long as Minsk is negotiating with Moscow. As she sees it, as soon as money from Russia arrives, he will turn his back on the transatlantic allies and their demands for democratization.

The EU’s promise is to temporarily remove 171 out the 175 names from their blacklist, including that of Lukashenko; the four who will stay on the list are linked to political disappearances. At the same time, much needed financial aid will be offered through a dozen economic measures, like easier access to EU capital markets and loans from EU institutions like the European Investment Bank. What is missing, however, in this equation of better relations with Belarus is civil society.

Regardless, the civil sector is almost absent in Belarus. Being hardly tolerated by the state, it has survived in the underground; political parties are almost extinct. Initiatives and NGOs have limited access to the general public and public spaces. While pressure on civil society has increased, Western attention and financial support has been largely diverted to Ukraine.

The balancing act on the side of EU and the United States is obvious. They want to help Minsk stabilize in an unstable region and promote reform process and democratic evolution, but this is impossible without working with both Lukashenko and the civic sector, and he will not negotiate with dissidents.

Therefore the West should not be so pragmatic as to deal exclusively with officials, as this would mean that it nolens volens is helping to stymie active parts of society.

To be effective, the United States and EU should draw a road map of reforms and reciprocal steps to further nudge the Belarussian government to gradually transform and modernize the system. At the same time, they need to deliver on their promise to invigorate people-to-people contacts and support to civic society through existing exchange and training programs for students, regional activists, specialists, and officials.

Even as crises all over the world demand transatlantic partners’ attention and resources, the partners should stay consistent with their offers and demands to Belarus. Otherwise, frozen sanctions may play a part in freezing Belarusian society.

Maryna Rakhlei is a program officer in GMF’s office in Berlin. This article was first published by the GMF.

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