It is fair to say that, until the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet in Minsk this past weekend, the European Union had appeared to suffer a severe form of "Belarus fatigue" this year.
The multiple issues facing the bloc's beleaguered eastern neighbor and its embattled democratic opposition had simply stopped registering very high in Brussels with the ongoing COVID pandemic, deteriorating relations with Russia and, most recently, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sucking up all the bandwidth. That is, until the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka forced an EU-registered plane, flying between two EU capitals, to land in Minsk so that it could arrest journalist Roman Protasevich.
Suddenly, Belarus is back on the top of the agenda in the EU with leaders scrambling to come up with an appropriate response when they meet for an already pre-planned summit in Brussels on the evening of May 24. And judging from their statements, Brussels is set to react with possibly more than statements of concern and condemnation.
An EU declaration, signed by all 27 members -- quite a rare feat these days as Budapest, in particular, has blocked most foreign-related items recently -- noted that "the EU will consider the consequences of this action, including taking measures against those responsible."
The otherwise very measured European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted last night that "the outrageous and illegal behavior of the regime in Belarus will have consequences." She added that "those responsible for the Ryanair hijacking must be sanctioned."
So what measures can we expect Brussels to take? Calling for an investigation by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is almost certain. There are also talks of banning Belavia, the state-owned Belarusian national airline, from landing at EU airports and suspending all flights of EU airlines from entering Belarusian airspace. There are indications that these measures can happen relatively quickly but of course they would have the greatest effect if all member states, as well as other Western countries joined in, making some sort of coordination necessary.
Suspending all transit, including ground transit from Belarus into the bloc has also been suggested even though it remains to be seen if neighboring states such as Poland will agree to this considering the potential economic impact. Then, of course, there is a question whether EU member states will move to block payouts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Minsk is entitled to in the effort to combat the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then, there are traditional sanctions, both on entities and people, as well as possible economic ones. After the crackdown on demonstrators, which followed a presidential election in August that was widely seen as rigged, the EU imposed asset freezes and visa bans on a total of 88 individuals and 7 entities in three rounds in the autumn of 2020, including on Lukashenka himself.
A fourth sanctions package has been in the works since early this year and was slated to come out before or at the EU foreign affairs council on June 21. But the work on this package illustrates quite well the "Belarus fatigue" in Brussels mentioned above. Work should have started on it in February, but it has all been painfully slow. There has been reluctance by the EU diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), to initiate a sanctions package, arguing it is normally the member states that do so.
The usual suspects, such as Lithuania, have long argued that it shouldn't be Vilnius or other Eastern EU member states that always kick-start these sorts of initiatives and that others should take ownership as well. In the end, nine countries stepped forward some weeks ago to present some lists containing 70 or so names of people and entities, largely from the justice sector in Belarus. But again, it was largely eastern ones doing the pushing. And again, the list was reportedly watered down as relevant working groups in Brussels started dissecting it, with businesspeople close to Lukashenka and sensitive entities being crossed off as they have trade links with various EU countries. Left on the list would most likely be people who hardly have bank accounts in the bloc or who wouldn't travel to the Greek islands or the Côte D'Azur anyway – a pattern seen in the previous three sanction rounds as well.
So, it's perhaps little wonder that Lukashenka felt emboldened to do what he did on May 23. Ever since last year's election, which has been roundly condemned as stolen, he has continued to turn the screws on the opposition with little real action or reaction from the EU -- at least in the last six months. He must have noticed with delight that Belarus has not really been on the agenda as a serious discussion point at a single EU foreign affairs council this year and it wouldn't have featured at the EU summit tonight if it weren't for the Ryanair incident.
Privately, various EU officials had told me earlier that they had conceded that he had "won" and would remain in charge of the country, despite the fact that the EU does not recognize his authority officially. The feeling was that Belarus slowly but surely would be consigned to the usual state of comfortable Western neglect with opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya becoming yet another feted but exiled Belarusian leader.
There might be a chance to change that now -- if the EU and the rest of the West really want to.