Maksim Vassin

International Relations and Global Governance Analyst

Last dictatorship in Europe — what should the EU do with it?

On May 23rd, 2021, in violation of numerous international laws and regulations, Belarusian Air Force forced Ryanair Flight 4978 to land in Minsk Airport, citing a bomb threat from Hamas.

The threat was quickly discredited as fake, and the plane was given a green light to leave Minsk. However, several passengers stayed behind. Among them was Roman Protasevich, a prominent dissident journalist, and his girlfriend, as well as several passengers who are alleged to be Russian and Belarusian KGB agents. Protasevich and his girlfriend were detained, causing outrage among the EU member states and other countries around the world. The incident was allegedly staged by the Belarusian officials only to detain the journalist. The incident with the Ryanair plane did not start the confrontation between Belarusian ruling regime and its citizens but it became the second act of the conflict stemming from summer 2020, when the sitting president Lukashenka allegedly rigged the election, and the popular winner Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was forced to flee to Lithuania. The largest protests in Belarusian history followed, yet they were brutally suppressed by the oppressive regime, jailing innocent people, silencing the media and doubling down on human rights violations.

Belarus became the battleground for spheres of influence between the Western democratic states and Russia. Belarus sits firmly within Russian area of regional hegemony and its sphere of interests (capitalised on economic and socio-cultural interests in the near abroad rather than outright political manipulation in neighbouring countries) (Szostek, 2018; Trenin, 2009). Russia attempted to integrate it culturally, economically, and socially, especially through the establishment of the Union State between Russia and Belarus. However, on the other side, the Baltic states, notably Lithuania, have tried to influence and accelerate the democratisation of Belarus in 2020. Lithuania gave political asylum to many Belarusian political migrants, pressured the EU to impose new sanctions and, recently, gave Tikhanovskaya’s team diplomatic recognition. On July 5th, Lithuania recognised Tikhanovskaya as the winner of Belarusian elections and gave diplomatic recognition to the Belarusian Democracy Representation Office (source); Tikhanovskaya was recognised as the legitimate winner of the election by Lithuania back in September 2020 (source).

Such interest from the Lithuanian side towards the faith of Belarusian democracy is not surprising nor unjustified, and the answer to this lies within the constructivist international relations theory and recent history of the Baltic states. The relations between states, according to Wendt, are based upon prior interactions and shared historical experiences (Wendt, 1992). The understanding of “common destiny” through historical experiences is important for current foreign and security policy of the Baltic states, and is a uniting component for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (Vaiksnoras, 2000/2002). As countries with the highest democracy ratings in the post-USSR space (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020), it is no surprise that the Baltics, led by Lithuania, are at the front of the line to aid the Belarusian democratic movement gain traction globally and regionally.

However, this is met by many challenges from Russia, as Belarus is seen as an important economic and strategic bargaining tool. Firstly, Russia-friendly Belarus brings a crucial strategic military advantage for the Kremlin — the Suwalki Gap. The Suwalki Gap is a narrow strip of Polish-Lithuanian border situated between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast and Belarus. Should military conflict ever ensue and if Belarus stays loyal to the Kremlin, the Suwalki Gap can be closed in a matter of days and would completely cut off the Baltic States from the rest of Europe. The gap is a crucial strategic advantage for Russian forces and is a major weakness in NATO’s defence plan for the Baltic States. Should Belarus democratise and turn towards the EU, this strategic advantage can be lost for Russia, especially since it has invested large sums of money in ramping up its military presence in Kaliningrad.

What should also be noted is the economic importance of Belarus for Russia. The investigation by the journalists of NEXTA, the media outlet spearheaded by the jailed journalist Roman Protasevich, has shown that Russia utilises Belarus as the transit stop to legitimise importing sanctioned EU goods. This has proved to be a major economic boost for both Belarusian and Russian power elite, rather than being an accelerator for the economy that would benefit all (NEXTA, 2021). Again, democratisation of Belarus threatens to undermine such supply chains for both countries and cost the power elite a major source of enrichment.

What should be EU’s next steps regarding the Belarusian democracy crisis?  The most imminent and urgent matter is the refugee crisis on the Lithuanian border. Due to Belarusian state agencies aiding migrants reach Lithuanian border, the Baltic country is facing a refugee influx that it is not capable to deal with. Recent deployment of emergency forces by Frontex (EU Border and Coast Guard Agency) is the first step towards dealing with the matter on hand. However, this only treats the symptoms, rather than the disease. Other Baltic States, Poland, and other countries that have undergone the same transition from a totalitarian dictatorship to a democracy in Europe must give Svetlana Tikhanovskaya diplomatic recognition. Not only it will show unity within the EU but, most importantly, delegitimise Lukashenka’s regime. This will be instrumental in dismantling the system that the governing elite profits off of and boosting the transition process, as well as pressuring EU to impose further sanctions on Belarus.

Are such interventions justified? Locke gives a particularly relevant insight into when interventions in state’s sovereignty are justified. Locke’s natural law sets three basic principles: “no one ought to harm another in his right, health, liberty and possession; inalienable right for self-preservation; not in competition with self-preservation, do everything to preserve others, all mankind”. Should a state violate these laws, others have the right to punish those who deviated from them (Locke, 2015). (Locke also says that they have the right to kill those who violate the laws but, in this context, it is rather extreme). With the regime’s handling of the initial protests in 2020 — reports of abuse, beatings, and even torture — Lukashenka has clearly violated the social contract and laws of nature, thus giving other states justification in meddling with Belarusian internal affairs. The task for the EU is to devise a coherent action plan that would make use of this justification and fast-track the democratisation process in Belarus, while keeping Russian strategic and economic interests in the region in check.

Economist Intelligence Unit (2020). Democracy Index 2020. In Sickness and in Health?

Locke, J. (2015). The second treatise of civil government. Broadview Press.

NEXTA (director). (2021). Лукашенко. Золотое дно (from Russian: Lukashenka. The Golden Bottom).

Szostek, J. (2018). The Mass Media and Russia’s “Sphere of Interests”: Mechanisms of Regional Hegemony in Belarus and Ukraine. Geopolitics, 23(2), 307-329.

Trenin, D. (2009). Russia's spheres of interest, not influence. The Washington Quarterly, 32(4), 3-22.

Vaiksnoras, V. (2002). The Role of Baltic Defence Cooperation for the Security of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.