EU's Belarus sanctions won't burn bridges

The European Union has barred 158 top Belarusian officials from entering its territory and the ban extends to President Alexander Lukashenko. Yet the heads of the EU Foreign Ministries have opted to leave the door open on a dialogue with Minsk.

A day ahead of Alexander Lukashenko's inauguration, on January 20, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for tough sanctions against Belarus in response to the country's undemocratic elections and harsh actions against the opposition. The MEPs urged going beyond visa restrictions to freezing Minsk-bound financial aid through the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

At the same time, the foreign ministers of the EU who gathered in Brussels on Monday decided not to burn all bridges, retaining entry rights for Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov and Deputy PM Sergei Semashko. There's no talk of economic sanctions just yet, yet even if there was, such measures wouldn't be much threat to Lukashenko himself. Years of rule have made him pretty immune to such actions and even the West admits that they have little efficacy. It is far more important for Belarusian politicians to preserve the status quo inside the country, rather than respond to restrictions introduced by the West.

Nevertheless, experts believe that in the wake of the December events, Lukashenko will need to review his relationship strategy with both the EU and Moscow. "If before Minsk had some leeway in his bilateral ties with both countries, the situation has changed now," says Deputy Head of the Institute of Political Science Alexei Makarkin.

"If Lukashenko starts up with his to-ing and fro-ing again, saying to Russia: watch your step, else I'll go to the West - this is a lot less likely to be successful now, because the West has closed these windows of opportunity for contacts now. Meanwhile, Russia understands this and I think that if it takes steps towards Lukashenko, it'll be in exchange for certain concessions for his part. So you see now, no one believes his promises anymore and in this sense, he has a lot less room for games," the political scientist notes.

The relationship with Russia isn't cloudless either. Moscow has been perfectly clear about the fact that it doesn't consider him untouchable. All bilateral economic problems that arose last year could have at any moment taken on a political tinge. So Moscow's signal is unambiguous: Russia has recognized the results of the elections, but now Lukashenko needs to get used to a new paradigm, whereby the financial aid that Russia provides to Belarus will be predicated on tougher conditions. And conflicts with Moscow threaten not only the Belarusian economy, but also Lukashenko's personal power.


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