The European Union and the United States approved new sanctions aimed at members of the regime of Belarussian President Alyaksander Lukashenko on Friday, months into a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests following an Aug. 9 election that Western observers have denounced as rigged.
According to an announcement from the U.S. Department of Treasury, the sanctions will target eight individuals, including the deputy interior minister and the head of the Central Election Commission, who are “responsible for, or have participated in, undermining democratic processes in Belarus.”
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said, in a statement, “The Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations to choose their own leaders and peacefully exercise their rights have been met with violence and oppression from Belarusian officials… The United States and our international partners stand united in imposing costs on those who have undermined Belarusian democracy for years.”
Earlier Friday, E.U. officials announced their organization’s own sanctions against Belarusian officials.
George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, said two weeks ago that the United States and EU were working together on coordinated sanctions. Cyprus had been blocking the measure until final voting on Friday morning, according to the New York Times. Cyprus had been pushing for language targeting Turkey on an unrelated matter. The parties agreed to language urging Turkey to enter negotiations and Cyprus lifted their block.
“U.S. and EU sanctions have come late; but they will enhance the pressure on Lukashenko’s government to ease the crackdown on the brave Belarusian protesters who continue to mass in Minsk and other cities on weekends, nearly two months after the fraudulent presidential elections,” said John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the current director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, in an email. Coordination between the United States and EU would make the penalties more effective, he said. “Sanctioning senior Ministry of Interior officials involved in the crackdown was a serious step. It would be good to sanction too lower level interior officials involved in the repression. Hackers sympathetic to the demonstrators have released information regarding 1000 of these officials. Sanctioning some of them might undermine the willingness of their colleagues to participate in the crackdown.” What is most critical now is for the United States and partner nations to make Belarussian authorities understand that “if the repression does not cease, there will be additional sanctions,” he said.
The United States already had some sanctions in place against the Lukashenko regime but had been making entreaties to Lukashenko in recent years, as the regime’s relationship with Moscow grew strained. The August election chaos appears to have mended the bond between Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at least for now. Belarus, which has little military power of its own, has long been considered one of Russia’s key allies and is strategically positioned very close to Lithuania and Poland. The 2017 Russian Zapad exercises took place largely in Belarus, but featured mostly Russian troops. Some Western observers claim that Lukashenko’s value to Putin goes beyond military positioning. If Lukashenko leaves power, it shows that autocratic regimes in Moscow’s orbit can be toppled. Putin “cannot afford to have the authority in Belarus to be overthrown,” Deutsche Welle columnist Konstantin Eggert said in August. “The only thing that would suit Moscow is for Lukashenko to go of his own volition, which is now impossible, only because if Lukashenko goes today, or tomorrow, or in a week’s time, it will look as a flight.”
The Trump administration “declined for now to revoke a special license giving the nine largest state-owned companies in Belarus access to the U.S. financial system, as urged by the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a government body that advises administrations on sanctions,” according to the Wall Street Journal.