Will sanctions put enough pressure on Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus?

After the forced landing of a Ryanair plane to arrest a government critic, Belarus has been targeted with economic and individual sanctions from EU countries and the US. While the latest wave of sanctions has provoked outrage from Lukashenko’s regime, their true effectiveness is however to be doubted.
The Lukashenko regime oppresses protestors in Belarus
Riot police facing protests against Lukashenko’s regime in Minsk

“Europe’s last dictatorship”

Belarus has been a dictatorship ever since Alexander Lukashenko came to power after the country’s independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Not willing to end his thirty-year reign, he let himself be elected once more in a highly criticised presidential election in August 2020. Not recognised by the EU nor the US, the election lacking in democratic proceedings provoked unprecedented popular protests.

The protests were accompanied by a multitude of arrests and alleged torture in prisons. The opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to go into exile. Despite the protests seeming to promise change, by late autumn 2020 they were mostly repressed by governmental brutality. Belarus and its failed revolution faded from media coverage again.

In May 2021 however, the Belarussian authorities made a step that provoked outrage in Europe; in an alleged bomb warning, a Ryanair plane en route for Lithuania was forced to land at Minsk airport by an MiG-29, a military plane used by the Belarussian army. There never was a bomb threat however; the only threat perceived by Minsk on board were the government critic and journalist Roman Protassevitch and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega. Upon arrival, they were both detained. Protassevitch was later seen in video material, “confessing” to his crimes against the government while showing signs of torture.

While never a favourable environment for journalism, censorship for media has increased to worrying levels since the protests after the election. Even foreign journalists have seen their accreditation refused, as the regime makes an effort to suppress media coverage in the country.

Outrage in Minsk

The new sanctions now come as a joint warning to Lukashenko’s regime from the EU, the US, Great Britain and Canada. They notably limit exports to Belarus and limit its access to the European financial market. The EU will also cease importing some Belarussian products and reinforce its embargo on weapons. Further measures also included travel bans and freezing of assets of several high-ranking individuals. Among them are the Belarussian Ministers of Defence and of Transport, an Air Force commander and one of Lukashenko’s sons. Over one hundred Belarussian individuals now feature on the EU’s list of sanctions.

Reactions from Minsk were quick and severe. Lukashenko especially attacked Germany, which has participated in the latest imposition of sanctions on Belarus; the dictator notably made a comparison between the Nazi regime and modern-day Germany after the imposition of sanctions. He called the joint sanctions a “collective conspiracy” attacking the Belarussian state and its sovereignty.

The questionable effectiveness of sanctions

The real question however relates to the effectiveness of the measures taken. Economic sanctions should have a two-fold effect; by targeting large companies and projects in which the Belarussian state also has an interest, the state economy can be damaged to a certain extent.

However, economic sanctions inevitably also harm the innocent in this “economic war”, as Belarussian authorities have called the measures; the majority of Belarussian citizens, already struggling under governmental repression, are not financially prepared for the effects of sanctions. This also goes for the previous package of sanctions; with a ban on Belarussian airlines and travel ban for Belarussian citizens to the EU, this majoritarily affected average citizens who are thus almost unable to leave the territory.

Sanctions targeting individuals from the government and important institutions are more specific in their effects. By placing travel bans on high-ranking officials and freezing their assets in foreign banks, there is a direct implications for individuals. However, the specificity of this type of sanctions overall of course has a limited effect on the whole country.

The powerful ally in Moscow

The effectiveness of sanctions is also to be questioned when looking at the example of Belarus’ neighbour and ally, Russia. From the Navalny affair to military threats against Ukraine and NATO, Russia has provoked multiple sanctions from the EU and the US. Equally targeting its economy and high-ranking individuals, they have had little effect. Rather, Moscow has reacted even more aggressively following the measures.

While Belarus is smaller and in a much more precarious financial situation, the effectiveness of sanctions however remains unclear. Lukashenko’s outraged reaction does indicate that they have hit a sensitive spot; yet what do the sanctioning parties in fact expect from their measures? A toppling of the regime is utopian, even with more economic pressure. Lukashenko has been in power for too long to let himself be deterred from remaining where he is by a weakened economy. This is also facilitated by Russia’s financial support of his neighbour; as long as Moscow continues to lend money to Minsk in exchange for unwavering political support, the effect of sanctions will remain limited.

Yet it should not be forgotten that this situation cannot continue forever. Although both exterior pressure and internal revolution have failed to change the political situation, they did weaken the regime. Entirely dependent on Russia and troubled by internal disorder, “Europe’s last dictatorship” is only being held together by authoritative brutality and political repression. While change might not be imminent, this combination is not a recipe for lasting stability.


hit a sensitive spot = toucher un point sensible

assets = capital

to fade = disparaitre

to detain = détenir

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