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2021.07.06 08:00

EU hit Belarus regime lifeline running via Lithuania – but to what effect?

Andrew Rettman, euobserver2021.07.06 08:00

The EU will have to strike harder at Belarus' top company, Belaruskali, to influence the regime, its workers have said.

"Current sanctions hardly harm the ability of Belaruskali to work in the EU," the Strike Committee of the Belarusian firm, which makes potash, a fertiliser component, told EUobserver in a statement on Saturday.

"The regime can still trade in fertilisers and transport smuggled cigarettes in [train] wagons with them," it added.

"For sufficient pressure, it is necessary to include all types of potash [in the EU ban], and all stakeholders both in Belarus and abroad," it also said, naming Austrian firm Soltrade as a key partner of Belaruskali in Europe.

Belaruskali makes a fifth of the world's potash and brings in over €2bn a year in foreign currency for Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU recently imposed economic sanctions on Belarus after Lukashenko hijacked an airliner to seize an opposition activist. But it banned only 15 percent of Belarus' potash-types, in a deliberate loophole.

The EU also permitted borrowing to the state-owned Development Bank of Belarus. And it left various kinds of oil-products off the hook.

One EU reason for the loopholes was to limit fall-out against ordinary Belarusians, EU officials and diplomats said. But the Belaruskali workers disagreed with this type of thinking.

"Sanctions harm only those people who are in power, support the dictatorship and the fascist regime. Workers ... have lost the right to protest and defend their interests," the Strike Committee said.

And Lukashenko was already finding ways to evade the sanctions anyway, it added.

"With the help of Russia, with the help of changing the codes of goods [in customs papers], with the help of bribery, of lobbyists, with the help of trade in political prisoners. This is just a small part of the methods that Lukashenko's gang usually use [to evade punishment]," the Strike Committee said.

Meanwhile, another reason for the EU approach was to hold a stick over Lukashenko's head, instead of just hitting him, to try to change his behaviour.

"The EU would not be adopting these sanctions if we did not believe they could have the desired effect," EU foreign-relations spokesman Peter Stano told this website.

"It is not the end of the story. The EU will continue to assess the situation on the ground in order to determine whether further EU measures are warranted," Stano said.

But the situation has continued to deteriorate in the few days since the sanctions were adopted.

Migrants

Lithuania declared an emergency on Friday after Lukashenko pushed hundreds of migrants across the EU border in recent days.

Read more: Lithuania declares state-level emergency over migration

"Lukashenko is flying in refugees from Iraq [...] Cameroon, Mali," Natalia Koliada, a Belarusian emigre living in London, told EUobserver.

And he was organising the campaign together with Mikhail Gutseriev, a Russian oligarch recently put on an EU blacklist, she added.

"When they [refugees] are brought to Minsk they are accommodated in Gutseriev's hotel - the Hotel Renaissance. It's a hybrid war that Lukashenko has started against Europe," she said.

Belarus also caught Lithuania's attention when it began moving around anti-aircraft missiles near its border on Thursday and Friday.

"Lithuania is closely monitoring the situation," its defence minister, Arvydas Anušauskas, told the EUobserver on Saturday.

Read more: Reports suggest Belarus moving missile systems close to Lithuanian border

"As far as we know [...] the current movement of missiles is related to the preparation for the military exercise 'Zapad'," Anušauskas said, referring to Zapad 2021, a joint Belarusian-Russian military drill due in September, rather than to a new provocation.

But, in any case, Koliada, who said the EU blacklist should have targeted at least 20 more Gutseriev-type oligarchs, echoed the Belaruskali workers in saying the EU pressure was too weak to make a difference.

"The EU is still in 'wait and see' mode [...] but what exactly has to happen in order to change the so-called gradual approach into synchronised and strong action by the EU?", she added.

Direct aid

Meanwhile, the Belaruskali Strike Committee also urged the EU to give money directly to activists in Belarus instead of funnelling it via opposition structures in exile in Lithuania.

"Help civil society and workers in Belarus, not in Vilnius. Directly," it said in its statement.

Some activists were struggling to buy ink cartridges for printers to make fliers for protests, EUobserver's contacts said.

Others were struggling to pay for petrol to drive to railway crossings to vandalise signals, so that they could slow down trains of Belarusian potash going to Russia, where Russian firms can resell it to Europe.

"People are feeling burnt out," one activist leader told this website. "I'm angry. I'm like a dog on a chain – I know how to attack, but the chain won't let me."

"The current opposition is divided and undermined. It needs help and dedication from the side of the West [...] This is the beginning of a long game. Not the end," Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, a Ukrainian former presidential aide and EU ambassador, also told EUobserver.

And the "game" was about more than Lukashenko himself, Yelisieiev, who now runs New Solutions Centre, a think-tank in Kyiv, added.

"Russia's aim is to swallow Belarus as soon as it can and transform it into a quasi-autonomous region of the Russian Federation [...] Lukashenko's aim is to postpone this moment as far as he can," Yelisieiev said.

Meanwhile, Russia's game is also to make sure pro-democratic forces in Belarus fail, in order to send an example to the region.

Enlargement

"Let's be clear, Belarus is Russia's arm. If it hits back at the EU, it's not Belarus that's doing it, it's Russia. It's not Lukashenko, it's [Russian president Vladimir] Putin," Yelisieiev said.

And if the EU really wanted to help people in Belarus and beyond, then it should move beyond sanctions and offer prospects of EU membership to inspire change, he added.

"Democratic forces in Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and even Armenia are desperately waiting for brave and decisive signals from the EU on the European perspective," Yelisieiev said.

This story originally appeared at EUobserver, partners of LRT English.

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