Remarks from Jobbik MEP Márton Gyöngyösi:
Belarus’ highjacking and force-landing Ryanair’s Athens-Vilnius flight, which allowed Lukashenko’s authorities to arrest opposition activist Raman Pratasevich, has put the European Union in a position where a decision is inevitable. While the EU has been able to keep a convenient distance from the world’s conflicts, foreign policy experts and citizens particularly interested in this area have long been warning us that if we avoid every difficult decision and fail to give a coherent direction to our diplomacy, it will harm the EU. Now we need to give a clear answer to the Belarus situation. But what should this answer be?
The situation of Belarus and the relations with Minsk have caused concerns for European politicians for quite a while.
It’s long been clear that Alexander Lukashenko’s regime could hardly be called democratic, in fact, it is rather an old-fashioned dictatorship that often applies Soviet-like methods.
However, there was a reason why Lukashenko could build up such an anachronistic regime in the EU’s neighbourhood. As a matter of fact, the Belarusian dictator enjoyed quite a beneficial position for a long time in terms of domestic and foreign policy alike, since both Europe and Russia were interested in keeping up relatively good relations with Belarus. The reason lies in the country’s geographical position as well as Lukashenko’s diplomatic maneuvers, the latest example of which was Minsk’s successful action as intermediary during the Eastern Ukraine crisis. Belarus is of utmost importance for Russia both culturally and geopolitically, so Moscow is willing to grant considerable leeway and overlook many things for Lukashenko, which the Belarusian dictator has always capitalized on. As far as the EU was concerned, Lukashenko’s often reluctant support for Moscow and his relative dissidence has always considered as some sort of guarantee that Russia will be “kept at a safe distance” from the western countries.
Collecting the benefits from both sides, Lukashenko was able to successfully turn them into domestic political profit: beginning as early as the 90s, he created a regime that stood out of the post-Soviet region with its stability and (very) relative welfare.
The people of Belarus were quite appreciative of this for a long time and Lukashenko, despite his methods, enjoyed substantial support from the Belarusian society.
However, those days are far gone now, as it is clearly shown by the public unrest going on since last summer. After last year’s fraudulent election victory, Lukashenko has had to face an ever longer and more intensive wave of street protests which, albeit unable to shake his regime at its foundations, have damaged his European connections just enough to make it harder and harder for him to maintain his shuttlecock policy.
Of course, everything is relative: while the Belarusian opposition was celebrated as freedom fighters by the EU’s public and its exiled leaders were received at the highest levels, the Union’s position has actually been quite ambiguous.
Let’s be honest, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her group hardly got more than some pats on the shoulder and nice words, while Lukashenko, back at home, was using more and more uninhabited and violent methods against the demonstrators.
Why was it allowed to happen? The answer lies in the EU’s long dilemma: how ethical and how dangerous is it to take a firm stance against Lukashenko and his regime? Obviously, any economic sanctions hard enough to dilapidate a regime would first harm the people of Belarus. Lukashenko appears to be completely unwilling to let go of his power, and the more he is isolated in the West, the more he will turn towards Moscow, thus putting the western countries in a geopolitically difficult situation.
The dilemma could have persisted for a long time but the forced landing of the Ryanair flight and the arrest of Belarusian opposition activist Raman Pratesevich put the EU in a position where it cannot avoid giving a response much longer. If this affair is not followed by tough sanctions, Belarus will inevitably repeat this step and continue trampling on the rights of not only its own citizens but those of the European Union, too. Russia might be a partner to this, as it is already predictable based on Moscow’s rejection of flight plans avoiding Belarus.
However, if Europe takes a firm action as German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggested and orders truly deep-cutting sanctions against Belarus, it will jeopardize the Belarusian opposition as well as the general public in the country.
After its long hesitation to take a clear value-based stance, Europe now seems to be at a crossroads where it must give a straight answer as to what is more important: standing by its own values, democratic beliefs and their protection even at risk, or accommodating economic and humanitarian considerations at the price of keeping tyrants in power through implicit support?
Just a side note: this issue is more pressing than ever in areas other than neighbourhood policy, too…