Pavel Chuduk wants the EU to come down hard on the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. The 30-year-old English teacher has good reason for this. One of an estimated 6,000 picked up by the security forces during protests against Lukashenko’s “victory” in presidential elections in Belarus widely regarded as rigged he was taken to a police station and subjected to torture by electric shock. After zapping him a few times his police captors then found it very amusing that he was unable to control his limbs.
Tortured and humiliated by the state, Chuduk wants the EU to bring in sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko and his regime as part of a concerted effort to force the bloody autocrat out of power. But will EU foreign ministers, who meet to discuss the crisis in Belarus on Friday, heed his call?
The unprecedented level of violence in Belarus should prompt new EU sanctions against its rulers. But sanctions, like much of Europe’s approach to the country, could well be tempered by a desire to draw Belarus closer to the West and away from the un-nerving influence of Russia. Push, or punish, Lukashenko too hard, the logic goes, and he will become an ever-closer friend of fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin. Keep the door to the West ajar and one day Lukashenko might see the light and usher his country through it. So Brussels has always sought to maintain a dialogue with him, and this may remain a priority.
There might also be a fear in the West that a collapse of the Lukashenko regime could result in direct Russian interference in Belarus. A repeat of the chaotic transition of power seen in Ukraine during the Maidan revolution, in which the pro-Moscow man got the boot, is something Putin will strive to avert at all costs, and, given all that it has on its plate right now, the last thing the EU wants is more Russian meddling and instability on its eastern border.
These considerations could well mute the EU’s response to the crisis despite the scale of the bloodletting on Belarusian streets and the gross human rights violations.
Ursula von der Lyden, the head of the European Commission, has so far made no response to calls by Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister and one of Europe’s more hawkish leaders on Belarus, for an emergency EU summit other than saying she had spoken to him about the situation. This has prompted some to speculate that Brussels already favours a more considered and dovish, rather than robust, approach to Belarus.
Another factor is that sanctions require EU unanimity. While countries such as Poland, the Baltic states and Germany are pushing for tough measures their plans could be torpedoed by, for example, Hungary. While not opposed to all sanctions Budapest has argued that isolating Belarus will be counterproductive, and it is an argument that carries a certain amount of weight in European capitals.
But the unbridled scale of the brutality Lukashenko has inflicted upon his own people, and the massive election fraud that appears to have taken place may make it impossible for the EU to play soft with Belarusian leader. European leaders could well realise they can no longer tolerate a dictator in Europe.