- The brazen arrest of a dissident journalist Roman Pratasevich reflects an increasingly restrictive and unpredictable political environment in Belarus, which will continue to pose multiple risks in Europe.
- The European Union’s (EU) sanctions will hurt the Belarusian aviation sector but are unlikely to alter President Alexander Lukashenko’s commitment to pursue his political opponents at home and abroad.
- The treatment of Pratasevich while in detention could be an important factor shaping the EU’s position on further sanctions on Minsk.
Yesterday, 24 May, the European Council agreed to impose sanctions on Belarus, which intercepted and diverted a commercial flight between two EU countries in order to arrest Pratasevich on 23 May. The EU will restrict access for Belarusian airlines’ to EU airspace and airports, and sanction individuals and entities linked to the Lukashenko regime. The EC also urged EU-based air carriers to avoid Belarusian airspace, a measure which is already observed voluntarily by some European countries and airlines.
Once imposed, the announced sanctions will significantly restrict air travel to/from Belarus and hurt the country’s aviation industry. The country’s flagship carrier Belavia – which flew to 30+ European destinations from Minsk, and was one of the most profitable state-owned companies prior to the pandemic, likely will be forced to reorient its business activities. In addition, the rerouting of international flights away from Belarus will cut revenue from overflight fees and air control services. In 2019, the state-owned air navigation company BelAeroNavigatsia serviced 325,000 flights and had an estimated revenue of USD 50-70mn.
The EU is also expected to adopt further economic sanctions on Belarus, which are yet to be specified. The Lithuanian foreign ministry has hinted at potential restrictions on key Belarusian exports, including oil products, potassic fertilizers or machinery. While such restrictions would have a significant economic impact, it remains unclear whether such relatively harsh measures would receive backing from all EU member states. In this respect, the treatment of Pratasevich (and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega) while in detention could affect the EU position.
Despite the certain economic costs, Western sanctions are unlikely to diminish Lukashenko’s resolve to pursue and punish political rivals at home and abroad. Such tactics symbolize Lukashenko’s alleged victory over opposition following mass protests in summer/autumn 2020 and his goal to deter and silence political dissent in the future.
The contentious detention of Pratasevich also reflects an increasingly restrictive political environment in Belarus. In the past week alone, a prominent anti-regime activist Vitold Ashurak died in prison, and Belarusian authorities shut down the country’s largest independent news portal. In addition, they significantly tightened media laws, issuing a ban on live coverage of public protests and restricting publication of opinion polls by unauthorized outlets. In this context, any political liberalization is unlikely despite Lukashenko’s promise to hold a constitutional referendum in early 2022 to decentralize the country’s political system. If in fact there are any political changes in the works, they are almost certainly being coordinated with Moscow. Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are expected to hold their third face-to-face meeting this year later in May.
More generally, the isolated and unpredictable Lukashenko regime at the EU’s eastern border will remain a source of various risks, especially for its neighbors. Political and economic ties already are strained with the Baltic states, which are concerned about the safety of the Astravets nuclear power plant launched in late 2020 on the border with Lithuania (some 60km away from the capital Vilnius). Tensions are also high between Warsaw and Minsk over the treatment of Polish ethnic minorities in Belarus. Finally, closer military cooperation between Minsk and Moscow – both countries are set to conduct large scale military exercises in September – are being closely watched in Ukraine, given the recent build up of Russian troops near its eastern borders.