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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

EU Sanctions Belarus Officials, But Lacks Leverage Against 'Europe's Last Dictator'

By Henry Ridgwell August 20, 2020

As protesters continue to take to the streets in Belarus following a disputed August 9 election, Europe says it will impose sanctions on Belarusian officials it says were involved in vote-rigging and in the violent crackdown on opposition demonstrations.

Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner with 80 percent of the vote. The United States and the European Union say the vote was heavily rigged.

"We stand firmly behind the right of Belarusian people to determine their own fate," EU Council President Charles Michel said at a press conference following a summit of European leaders held over video link Wednesday. "The EU will impose shortly sanctions on a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and election fraud," Michel said.

The threat of further violence looms over Belarus. Lukashenko has told security services to clamp down on ongoing opposition protests, which have been building across the country since the vote. There have been numerous cases of alleged police brutality and torture of detained demonstrators.

The main opposition leader, 37-year-old Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania after the election. She has implored Europe to offer political support.

"When there is a new government – and let's face it, Lukashenko may not fall this week, or this month but he is going to fall, now I think the end of his regime is now inevitable – Europe should be ready to provide whatever assistance it can when that happens."

EU foreign ministers are drawing up a list of officials in Belarus who could face sanctions. Analyst Mark Galeotti of University College London, founder of the Mayak Intelligence analyst group, says the sanctions are largely symbolic and Europe has little leverage against Lukashenko.

"Precisely because we wanted to encourage Lukashenko's flirtation with us and therefore his challenging of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Moscow, we were prepared to a considerable extent to turn a blind eye to the fact that we had this brutal and ugly dictatorship within Europe. And that leaves us now with very few options," Galeotti told VOA in an interview Aug. 19.

Forefront in European minds is the risk of repeating events in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine following the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. "There is a dilemma about how much to push the process through without risking a Ukraine-style new confrontation with Russia," says analyst Jonathan Eyal of Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

Europe must tread carefully, says Galeotti. "The worst possible case would be if they made it look as if somehow the European Union was trying to woo Belarus and bring it into its camp. Because that might trigger a disproportionate response from Moscow. So at the moment I think actually the European Union in a way has it right precisely by sticking to essentially symbolic gestures."

Analysts say any violent government crackdown on the protests in Belarus would likely intensify opposition demands for a more powerful response from the West.

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