Time to hit Lukashenko where it hurts

By David Kramer and Joerg Forbrig

Following December's fraudulent election, a brutal crackdown has only added further misery to Belarus's beleaguered democratic opposition, civil society and media. In response, European Union ministers were on Monday expected to back a new travel ban and asset freeze against Alexander Lukashenko, the country's dictator, and more than 150 of his henchmen. The move is welcome, but does not go far enough. The time is now right to hit Mr Lukashenko where it hurts: his economy. The EU deserves credit for this decisive move, a radical change from its previous two-year campaign to "engage" Mr Lukashenko. This policy failed, and has been replaced with new promises to increase support for the country's democrats. But more can be done to press the case for reform and win the freedom of dozens of political prisoners held by the Belarusian KGB. The release of two prominent prisoners over the weekend should leave us in no doubt that the regime is sensitive to such pressure. To secure release and push for broader change, the west must now adopt economic measures against Minsk. Fuelled by massive Russian subsidies and growing business links with EU, the Belarusian dictator has been able to buy the political acquiescence of his people. The revenues also enable him to sustain a vast security apparatus. However, Mr Lukashenko's material situation has become less stable of late, creating the perfect opportunity to apply pressure. Russia has begun to phase out subsidies in the form of cheap oil and gas, while once-advanced Belarusian products have become uncompetitive after years without investment or reform of the economy. To fill the holes in its budget, Minsk has taken out loans on a staggering scale, tripling the country's debt over the past three years alone. The much-touted "Belarusian model" is increasingly broken. These are vulnerabilities the EU and US should exploit. First, the EU should freeze the assets of state-owned - meaning Lukashenko-owned - Belarusian companies and their subsidiaries. The US proved such moves work three years ago, when the holdings of oil monopoly Belneftekhim were blocked, forcing Mr Lukashenko to release political prisoners. Second, the EU should review its consumption of Belarusian export commodities. The sale, mostly to Europe, of petrochemical products provides most Belarusian revenues. Diesel processed by Belarusian refineries, however, accounts for only 1 per cent of EU use. Interrupting trade would cause little harm to Europe, but major economic disruption for Mr Lukashenko. Belarus will also soon need debt financing, as its reserves dwindle and loans require servicing. Unless more prisoners are released the EU should sever lines of credit. International financial institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank should follow. Finally, Mr Lukashenko has long depended on murky arms sales to bolster his coffers. Allegations emerged recently that Belarus sold missile systems to Iran, while jets provided and piloted by Belarus bombed a French military base during the Ivorian civil war in 2004. Further such arms deals should be blocked. Aside from the security benefits to such a move, this would also dry up a significant source of revenue for the regime. Some will worry that in pushing for tougher measures, the EU and US will antagonise Russia (which considers Belarus part of its wider sphere of interest) while others fear punitive measures will drive Mr Lukashenko into the arms of Moscow. But neither argument should deter action. Russia views Mr Lukashenko sceptically, and is unlikely to retaliate. Sanctions in the past were imposed because of how Mr Lukashenko mistreated his own people, not on whether Minsk and Moscow had good or bad relations; that approach should not change. The punitive measures we propose are strongly supported by Belarusian democrats. They know the time is right to tighten the screws on Europe's last dictator. As a wave of freedom moves from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, Europe must help those seeking liberty on its own border - and confront the threat Mr Lukashenko poses to freedom and human rights in Belarus and beyond. The writers are executive director of Freedom House in Washington and senior programme officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin


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