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Can sanctions change the behavior of Belarus?

Why imposing them might lead to perverse outcomes

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya speaks at a news conference on the continuing unrest in Belarus at the National Press Club in Washington on July 20. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
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As bad men go, Alexander Lukashenko has moved up the charts during his misbegotten 27-year tenure as the leader of Belarus. He was originally viewed as more buffoonish than brutal, a caricature of the former Soviet collective farm manager turned local politician. As the decades have passed, however, Lukashenko has become more willing to crack down on the citizens of his country, leading to mass protests after a disputed presidential election last summer. Matters have devolved to the point where Lukashenko, in an effort to stay in power, has been willing to violate powerful international norms.

Obviously, it would be in U.S. interests for Lukashenko to relax his grip on Belarusian society and, in an ideal world, step down. The Biden administration recently reimposed some sanctions on the country, to little avail.

It is noteworthy, therefore, that Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya — who by most accounts was the true winner of last year’s presidential election — has been making the rounds in Washington to urge the Biden administration to impose more sanctions on the Lukashenko regime. She has met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, USAID Director Samantha Power and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, among others.

Tikhanovskaya has some ideas for how to turn things around in Belarus. Reuters reports that “she asked U.S. officials to impose sanctions on companies in her country’s potash, oil, wood and steel sectors, as she visited Washington seeking stronger action” against Lukashenko’s government. According to CNN, she “delivered a list of companies that are monopolized” by Lukashenko’s regime “ ‘and his cronies.’ ” The Reuters report notes that “Such measures would go beyond existing sanctions on Lukashenko’s political allies and government bodies and ‘will be a real hit on him, to make him change his behavior and to release political prisoners,’ Tikhanovskaya told reporters.”

This is the kind of idea that seems easy to support. A bad man is running Belarus, and a brave woman who risked her life for her country is offering useful economic intelligence on how to hit him and his cronies. An easy call, right?

As someone possessing a passing familiarity with economic statecraft, I fear a reality check is needed. And the reality is that even if these sanctions bite Lukashenko and his inner circle hard, they are likely to make things worse and not better.

Admittedly, Tikhanovskaya’s call for sanctions is significant for two reasons. First, sanctions tend to have a better track record of success when legitimate elements of civil society are calling for them. Furthermore, if Tikhanovskaya’s economic intelligence is accurate, then the new sanctions have the potential to appreciably hurt Lukashenko and his allies.

The problem is that Belarus has an obvious black knight, a great-power benefactor willing to offset the costs of any additional sanctions: Russia. Time and again, the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin has doubled down on supporting Lukashenko when his grip on power has been threatened by civil society movements.

Additional sanctions would simply force Lukashenko even more into Putin’s grasp. Indeed, Tikhanovskaya admitted this in her recent news conference: “The relationship of Russia and Belarus at the moment is so close that the next step is loss of independence.” She further acknowledged, “we understand that Lukashenko has to pay for the support of the Kremlin.”

The scholarly research backs this up. In a 2019 paper in the journal Democratization on this very question, Mikkel Sejerson concluded that E.U. sanctions imposed on Belarus between 2004 and 2016 strengthened that country’s ties with Russia and worsened the human rights situation.

Lukashenko’s pattern over the past two decades has been clear: He does not want to lose any further autonomy to Russia, but he does not want to lose power either. When faced with a hard choice, he will appease Putin rather than the West. That is what would happen if new sanctions were imposed.

Maybe further economic pressure will force Lukashenko’s hand. But I doubt it.