The EU and Europe’s last dictator

by Lea Schiller

When elections were held in Belarus on August 9, Aljaksandr Lukaschenko had already been in power for 26 years. He has been dubbed “Europe’s last dictator“, and his reign has seen many rigged elections. This presidential election however, was different. For one, even though the country’s stagnating economy has caused dissatisfaction with Lukaschenko, COVID-19 was what fuelled most of the recent outrage against the president. The case numbers in Belarus are a lot higher than in neighbouring Poland, which has about four times as many citizens, and Lukaschenko has refused to introduce rules for social distancing. For him, the virus is merely a “psychosis“ – but his citizens fear for their lives. Additionally, the opposition found an unexpectedly popular candidate in Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya after her husband, who was originally meant to be in the race, was arrested by Belarusian authorities. 

Lukaschenko is said to have won with 80% of the vote with an 84% participation rate, but soon after the results were made public, people took to the streets all over the country, contending the election was rigged. It’s the biggest protests the country has ever seen – and they have one goal: to push Lukaschenko out of office. Riot police responded with tear gas and stun grenades to break up the protests. Thousands of people were detained and hundreds hospitalised for their injuries. 

Two days later, the EU’s High Representative released a declaration, criticising that the election was neither free nor fair, and that state authorities used “disproportionate and unacceptable violence” . Without any progress on human rights in Belarus, its relationship with the EU could only get worse and the EU would assess the actions of Belarusian authorities to review its relations with Belarus. A week later, EU leaders released a statement declaring that the EU would not recognise the results, as the elections were neither “free nor fair”. 

Among EU member states, there has been much debate about how to respond to the situation. Neighbouring states Lithuania, Poland and Latvia have all offered to be intermediaries. Lithuania, for instance, proposed a “National Council” for Belarus including both members of civil society and the government as well as an immediate end to police brutality in the country. Hungary meanwhile warned not to burn diplomatic bridges to Minsk – hardly surprising, considering that President Viktor Orbán has good relations with Lukaschenko and already called to end the existing EU sanctions against Belarus. 

On Friday the 14th of August, the EU’s foreign ministers took the first step towards imposing new sanctions on Belarus. After agreeing on imposing sanctions, the EU’s diplomatic body, the European External Action Service, will start preparations to compile a list of individuals and organisations responsible for the fraud violence around the election. All member states will then have to approve every name on the list before sanctions can be put in action, and how long this process will take is unclear.

Photo by Jana Shnipelson on Unsplash

References

Barigazzi, J. (2020, August 14). EU takes first step toward Belarus sanctions. Politico. Retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-belarus-sanctions-first-steps/

EU sucht nach Antworten auf Lukaschenko. (2020, August 13). Tagesschau. Retrieved from: https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/belarus-proteste-polizei-109.html

Council of the European Union. (2020, August 11). Belarus: Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the European Union on the presidential elections. Retrieved from: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/08/11/belarus-declaration-by-the-high-representative-on-behalf-of-the-european-union-on-the-presidential-elections/
Shotter, J & Seddon, M. (2020, August 10). Protests break out in wake of Belarus presidential vote. The Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/14b85fa8-c668-438e-9306-be4828b6666d