As the 2024 European Union (EU) elections approach, questions and aspirations arise about the future of the Union in the context of war in Europe, unstable democracies, and oppressive regimes. One of these countries is Belarus, whose democratic future is dependent on European cooperation. In this regard, the question arises: what can be said about, and most importantly, what actions can be taken to push this country towards a democratic path in the arms of the EU? In an era of resurgence of anti-democratic sentiments and populism, the importance of fostering a cohesive and democratic Europe takes on importance. Through a review of the EU policy towards the country and specific policy changes, such as the acceptance of passports of the Belarusian opposition, support of independent media organisations as well as NGOs and awareness campaigns.
Belarus has historically been stuck between the Western and the Eastern World and occupies a critical position, as it sits on the contact line between NATO countries and the Russian Federation. It’s geographical placement has meant that it’s territory has been a part of several neighbouring empires, including the Kievan Rus, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, the Russian Empire, and subsequently, the Soviet Union (USSR).
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Belarus was declared a republic and the country embarked on a process of constructing a new constitution based on the frameworks provided in France, Switzerland, and the United States (US). In 1993, this lengthy process concluded with the Supreme Soviet decision to grant the new democracy a presidential rather than parliamentary system.2 In 1994, this democratic shift was halted, however, with the election of Alexander Lukashenko, who led the country in a more authoritarian direction.
THE TURNING POINT
The repressive presidential government increasingly damaged advancements towards the West, including the surrender of nuclear weapons and the negotiation of a partnership with the European Union. In 1996, Lukashenko held a referendum which strengthened his powers as president and the official state policy shifted to a close association with Russia – first as a community and later as a bilateral Union. Over time, the EU, as well as NATO, extended their membership to neighbouring countries of Belarus, reinforcing the common perception of Belarus as an eastern, rather than western, country.
Throughout the 2000s, continuous protests in Belarus have shown the dissatisfaction of many Belarusians during Lukashenko’s presidency. These protests, mostly grassroots in nature, were focused mainly in the capital of Minsk, and their size was limited compared to what was to come.
After years of Lukashenko’s dismantling of the 1990s progress towards democratisation, in 2020 elections were again held. In the preceding years, partly due to sanctions imposed by the West, the country’s overall welfare had declined, along with the stability of the Belarussian society. After unashamedly rigging the 2020 elections and losing national social stability as a legitimization tool, Lukashenko faced the anger of protestors and increasing sanctions from the West. This anger fuelled the post-election protests and boosted the commitment of the protesters to democracy, leading Lukashenko to repress and criminalise such activities.
The peaceful demonstrations that took place, following the declaration of Lukashenko’s victory, were brutally suppressed by the police and the KGB. Several factors strengthened this newest mobilisation against Lukashenko, including the deterioration of the country’s economy, the increasing strong and organised oppression, and the blatantly illiberal election process. The protesters’ demands for new elections were quickly countered by increased repression on behalf of the government, imprisoning more than 7,000 persons in the initial five days of the protests, including notably opposition leaders. Amid several opposition politicians, who largely acted separately from each other, was arguably the most well-known political activist and opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled the country due to Lukashenko’s rigorous measures. She gained credibility through the growing dissatisfaction of Belarusians towards the dictator.
In response to the ongoing policy of repression, the protests spread across the country. Despite the fervent domestic protests and increased sanctions on behalf of the Western powers, Putin’s logistical, financial, and political support to the Belarusian state maintained and backed the systematic enforcement of control and oppression. When journalists of the Belarus national television station went on strike, for example, Putin sent the necessary personnel, including camera operators, news anchors, and technical support to continue the regime narrative on state television. Furthermore, this relationship between the two countries was not only beneficial for Lukashenko to sustain his authoritarian regime but also for Putin, who could use Belarus to his own political ambitions. All of these factors above have solidified the position of Lukashenko’s regime, with Belarusian civil society losing their chance at new and fair elections as well as being significantly affected by the sanctions of the West.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
While sanctions imposed by the West did not bring tangible results in systemic changes of the political situation in Belarus, there is potential for introducing measures with a profound impact. The strong will that remains within the Belarusian society to fight against this regime can be used as momentum to promote the democratisation process. A key figure in this fight for democracy is Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition. For fears of imprisonment if returning to her country, Tsikhanouskaya has been in exile since the elections in 2020. Despite her absence from the country, she has continued to advocate for Belarus’ move towards the EU. In the speech she held before the European Parliament in September 2023, she declared, “Europe is where we come from. And it’s where we are heading”.
There are a couple of fundamental steps that can be taken to support the Belarusian movement toward democracy and further ‘Europeanization’. Firstly, around half a million Belarusians have left the country due to the persecution of the regime and they cannot safely travel back to Belarus. Since September of 2023, however, it is no longer possible for these political expatriates to renew their official documentation from abroad, thus jeopardising the legal status of Belarusians all over Europe. The democratic movement in Belarus has been working on issuing national Belarusian passports as travel documents using the example of the passport Baltic states issued during the Soviet occupation. Recognizing these passports would be a first step to help the democratic movement.
Another important pillar would be the active implementation of the Council of Europe’s (COE) 2023 action plan, which aims at boost protections for human rights and rule of law standards in Belarus. This is crucial in light of recent March 2023 reforms which consolidated some of Lukashenko’s powers, including the addition of high treason to the crimes punishable with the death penalty. Jeopardising the lives of millions of Belarusians who are simply speaking their mind and advocating for the liberation of their country. This is not only a threat to democratisation, but also an attack on human dignity. To establish a system to defend human rights, the participation and acknowledgement of all COE Member States and the education of fellow European citizens on the situation in Belarus is needed to strengthen public understanding and support human rights activists and NGOs of the country working in exile.
An extensive review of the policy of the European Union towards Belarus is necessary to advance a peaceful transition of Belarus to a democratic state. By better communicating the autocratic pressure Belarusians are under, European public opinion can play a crucial role in incentivizing politicians to act more forcefully on the effort to democratise Belarus and support the opposition in future elections through international electoral observation and help to ensure a levelled playing field. The support of and build up independent media covering issues on Belarus to support the establishment of a conscious civil society is an equal part to this. Furthermore, the EU can increase efforts in connecting oppositionaries in Belarus, which are now scattered across Europe, to consolidate a unified approach for a democratic Belarus.
Written by Sophie Hrnecek, Edited by Sergio Uribe Henao
Photo Credit: Unsplash