As the courageous mass protests and the ongoing brutal oppression in Belarus fade from public attention in the U.S., we see growing criticism of the sanctions imposed on the Lukashenka regime by the U.S. and its democratic allies. While a critical reassessment of the U.S. policy towards Belarus is always worthwhile, and Belarus Freedom Forum has published our vision of the U.S. policy on Belarus, we believe that much of the recent criticism of Belarus sanctions is misleading and the idea of relaxing sanctions on the Lukashenka regime is harmful both to the prospect of democracy in Belarus and to global security.
Most importantly, the assumption that economic sanctions are self-sufficient in forcing specific policy decisions in Belarus denies the agency of Belarusian people to drive change in their own country. Sanctions are necessary because they add pressure on the Lukashenka regime and limit its options, but it is up to Belarusians to dismantle the illegitimate dictatorship and replace it with a democratic system of government based on the rule of law.
Instead of unrealistic expectations, the effectiveness of sanctions should be based on indirect indicators of their impact on the Lukashenka regime. Do sanctions come up in the regime’s public statements and diplomatic negotiations? Do sanctions raise the cost of maintaining the regime’s power structure and security apparatus? Do sanctions increase brain drain and contribute to a shortage of specialists? The answer to each of these questions is yes, and that means the Belarus sanctions work as intended.
There are several mutually conflicting myths and misconceptions about Belarus Sanctions.
Misconception 1: Sanctions push Belarus towards Russia and China.
This argument is based on a widespread and fundamental misunderstanding of Lukashenka’s motivations. Lukashenka’s engagement with the West has never been and can never be genuine. He might leverage the West for tactical advantage within his authoritarian alliances with Russia, China, Iran, et al., but he is incapable of seeing himself outside of that international mutual support system of dictatorships.
For Lukashenka, political survival is a prerequisite of physical survival, and he is well aware that he cannot reliably hold on to power in a democratic system of government. That makes democracy an existential threat not just to Lukashenka’s regime but to him personally. No amount of tactical advantages can ever change this risk calculus and persuade Lukashenka to take irreversible steps away from Russia, the country that, from year one of his presidency, even before Putin, consistently demonstrated disregard for democracy in Belarus and chose the loyalty of the authoritarian Lukashenka regime over the rule of law and democratic aspirations of Belarusian people.
So long as the U.S. and the E.U. keep their own democratic systems of government, the only way to turn Belarus away from Russia, China, and other authoritarian threats to the rule-based world order remains through a democratic breakthrough.
Misconception 2: Sanctions should be lifted in exchange for releasing political prisoners.
There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, it is based on the same fundamental misunderstanding of Lukashenka’s motivations. For someone who considers democracy an existential threat, caving to sanctions and releasing all political prisoners is a show of weakness. Lukashenka could afford that when he believed his position to be secure, but not when he is facing the biggest threat to his power since the mass protests and the failed impeachment attempt of 1996. Lukashenka will not do anything that could encourage more Belarusians to voice their dissent.
The second problem is that treating political prisoners in Belarus as hostages will encourage more hostage-taking. Lukashenka regime is the reason there are numerous severe human rights violations in Belarus. Lukashenka made Belarus a security threat in European airspace and on the borders of NATO allies. Lukashenka invited the Russian occupation of Belarus and turned the country into a co-aggressor in the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. A release of political prisoners by itself, without the structural changes demanded by the Coordination Council that would prevent the regime from taking more hostages in the future – ending and investigating political persecution and conducting free and fair democratic elections – would only enable the regime to terrorize, imprison, torture, and kill more Belarusians in the future.
Misconception 3: Sanctions didn’t topple the Lukashenka regime.
This is a moving goalpost argument that denies the agency of the Belarusian people. Sanctions alone were never going to be enough, and creating pressure on the Lukashenka regime is only one of the purposes of this policy instrument, the others being justice, deterrence, and protection of public institutions and private businesses from corruption. Democratic breakthrough in Belarus is primarily up to Belarusians, and progress or lack thereof towards that breakthrough is not a suitable evaluation criterion for the effectiveness of sanctions.
Misconception 4: Sanctions didn’t bring an economic collapse in Belarus.
Sanctions not bringing an economic collapse is another moving goalpost. The economic collapse is never a goal of economic sanctions. On the contrary, sanctions are always carefully targeted to focus their impact on the authoritarian regime, to discourage the country’s elites from getting involved in human rights violations, and to diminish the economic instruments used by the regime to sustain its power and to project it abroad. When sanctions affect the regime more than the general population of the sanctioned country, that means the U.S. and E.U. policymakers did a good job with targeting.
Misconception 5: Sanctions create hardships for ordinary Belarusians.
This statement is the opposite of the previous argument and also fails to account for the delicate balance sanctions implementation has to walk between intended outcomes and collateral damage. A totalitarian state actively works to blur the line between the people and the regime, dictators always seek to involve and implicate ordinary people in their crimes and to hold the population of their country hostage. While thoughtful targeting of economic sanctions can significantly reduce their impact on the general population of the sanctioned country, the society at large always has to carry some of the cost.
This claim also denies the agency of Belarusians, who in 2020 chose the path towards democracy and accepted the risks and hardships of this path. So far, the impact of the U.S. sanctions on ordinary Belarusians has been negligible, especially compared to the suffering of the many thousands who have their lives disrupted by the regime in retaliation for their dissent.
Economic and personal sanctions against the Lukashenka regime continue to be necessary. Their importance as an accountability mechanism and a deterrent against corruption goes hand in hand with their effectiveness in imposing additional costs on human rights violations in Belarus. The United States government and its democratic allies around the world should continue to gradually expand the sanctions, maintain consistency in the economic sanctions imposed on the allied regimes in Belarus and Russia, and strengthen the enforcement of sanctions and prosecution of sanction violations.