How to deal with a problem like Belarus? This question has been asked with greater urgency over recent weeks as the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko cracks down on political opposition at home and wages “hybrid warfare” against the EU by shepherding migrants across its borders with the bloc. 

Lengthy prison sentences were handed down last week to two of Belarus’s most prominent opposition activists. Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak will be jailed for 11 and 10 years respectively over their alleged attempts to “seize state power in an unconstitutional way” during mass protests against Lukashenko following contested elections held in 2020. 

Kolesnikova, Znak and other Belarusian opposition figures were instrumental in provoking an eruption of anger against Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime in 2020. When the authorities tried to deport Kolesnikova from the country, she tore up her passport in defiance, preferring to face danger in her homeland than to live in exile. 

Yet the prisoners now embody the sad fate of protests against Lukashenko since the 2020 vote. Rather than leading to the emancipation of Belarus, demonstrations led to a tightening of Lukashenko’s grip on the country. Mass protests against the regime have now largely died out because they are simply too dangerous to organise and undertake.  

The 2020 protests were successful in focusing the world’s attention on the Lukashenko regime – but hand-wringing from western politicians is unlikely to succeed where hundreds of thousands of Belarusian protestors have not. Indeed, western attempts to stop Belarus’s slide deeper into authoritarianism appear so far to have been woefully ineffectual, if not downright counterproductive. 

The EU, Britain and the US have opted for economic sanctions as their weapon of choice against the Lukashenko regime – notwithstanding the fact that financial penalties from the West are likely to exacerbate Belarus’s already heavy economic dependency on Moscow. Belarus’s close ties with the Russian fossil fuel sector are crucial for its economy: Minsk relies heavily on Moscow to meet most of its energy needs, while Russian oil and gas subsidies accounted for roughly 12 per cent of Belarus’s GDP in 2018. The country is also heavily dependent on foreign loans, and around 70 percent of the loans received by Belarus over the last decade have come from Russia. 

This economic dependency on Russia was a significant obstacle to Belarus’s integration into the western political system before the recent introduction of tough economic sanctions. The EU tried to surmount the problem by dangling the carrot of significant investments in return for regime change and a transition to a democratic system. It also welcomed Belarus into its Eastern Partnership programme, which aims to strengthen political and economic ties with prospective future members beyond the bloc’s eastern borders.

When Belarus chose to walk out of the Eastern Partnership scheme in June this year after EU sanctions were imposed, Brussels lamented the move, calling it “another step backwards” for the country. Nonetheless, it seemed unlikely that Belarus could continue as a member of an economic development programme with the EU while Brussels was simultaneously imposing sanctions with the explicit intention of damaging its economy.

Western institutions seem to think that if they can only make the Belarusian economy suffer enough, Lukashenko will stand aside in a paroxysm of guilt. But with Minsk already economically dependent on Moscow, it seems far more likely that cutting economic ties will only hasten a shift away from the West. Belarus’s walkout from the Eastern Partnership programme was the clearest indication yet that sanctions have failed to present a viable alternative vision for Belarus’s place in the world: they have been strong enough to push Belarus further into Russia’s arms, yet too weak to bring about serious damage to the regime. 

Belarus’s relations with the West have now deteriorated to the extent that the country is being accused by EU members of waging “hybrid warfare” against the bloc by shepherding migrants and refugees from the Middle East into the Schengen Area, via borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The EU has responded to this latest act of hostility by threatening yet another package of sanctions – again only likely to increase Belarus’s economic dependency on Russia. 

As the Belarusian regime destabilises the EU’s eastern borders while locking up political opponents at home, the question of how to deal with Lukashenko is becoming ever more urgent. Yet so far, methods deployed by the West have only accelerated the country’s crackdown on democratic values.