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The “Deeply Concerned” Belarus Edition

The “Deeply Concerned” Belarus Edition
By Weekly Focus by n-ost • Issue #7 • View online
Hi and welcome to the 7th issue of the Weekly Focus!
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The German word “Realpolitik” is often used when it comes to explain the pragmatic and moderate sanctions practice of mostly Western EU countries towards dictatorships in Europe’s East. This cold rationale sets supposedly realistic boundaries and limits for a more decisive and value-based European security policy. The compromise: keeping the dictators in their yard, mainly through economic ties (some call it corruption), hoping that things won’t get worse, and – of course! – showing “deep concern” and solidarity with the suppressed civil societies.
This couldn’t be farther away from the real threat facing Belarusians. They have been dealing with Lukashenko’s regime on their own, but their courageous protest was brutally suppressed and beaten up, their citizens imprisoned, sometimes even killed by a ruthless dictatorship. For a long time, they’ve been asking the EU to take a tougher stance. And who can argue when Belarusians are the ones, themselves, calling for hard economic sanctions?
Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland have been pro-actively supporting these calls, too. While Belarus may seem distant from Western Europe, for them, this dictatorship is a real threat right next door. That’s why for them, the idea that this isn’t going to spill over one day is everything but realistic – rather delusional and hopelessly naive.
Now, after Minsk’s infamous Ryanair capture, which some call state-terrorism, the long reluctance from the EU to decisively react to this spreading political virus changed for a moment. Is the mood really shifting? Or will we have already forgotten about this short window of determination in a few weeks?
Christian-Zsolt Varga, this week’s Editorial Coordinator
This week's author team: Vika Biran (Berlin / Minsk), Simone Brunner (Vienna), Vytautas Bruveris (Vilnius), Denis Trubetskoy (Kyiv) and Christian-Zsolt Varga (Berlin).
This week's author team: Vika Biran (Berlin / Minsk), Simone Brunner (Vienna), Vytautas Bruveris (Vilnius), Denis Trubetskoy (Kyiv) and Christian-Zsolt Varga (Berlin).
⚪🔴⚪ Viral: The many meanings of “deeply concerned”
Belarusian Social Media buzzing with posts mocking the „deeply concerned“ phrase. Photo: Collage / fb.com
Belarusian Social Media buzzing with posts mocking the „deeply concerned“ phrase. Photo: Collage / fb.com
“The European Union ‘deeply concerned’ again, ha?” That was the immediate reaction many jaded Belarusians had after the forced-landing of the Ryanair plane and the arrest of blogger Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. The Belarusian internet burst into a series of satirical memes, ridiculing European governments’ and institutions’ statements of “deep concern,” worry and inaction, highlighting how this hasn’t changed or brought any real results since 2020.
But one day later, to the astonishment of many oppositionists, the EU’s tone has been shifting. In unprecedented speed, the EU council accused Lukashenko’s regime of “hijacking” the Ryanair flight and announced a list of sanctions, while a number of airlines have completely cancelled their flights to Belarus or changed their routes to avoid entering Belarusian airspace altogether. 
But wait a second! Weren’t most EU countries, despite their “deep concerns,” long convinced that what is happening in Belarus is mainly a matter for Minsk itself, even if it involves torture, murder, and arrests? Now that Lukashenko became a threat not only to Belarusians, but to European citizens flying over the country (and airline businesses, of course) we suddenly understand what truly deeply concerns them. 
And now? After Belarus has finally become a pariah, at least in the air, the civil society is divided into two camps. While some are happy about the decision because they see it as the “beginning to an end” of the regime, others believe that Belarusians are now trapped because the chances of leaving the country for those who have been subjected to political persecution are catastrophically close to zero. There is no window to Europe any more. Belarus has become one big prison. 
For them, the flight bans were not the long-awaited sanctions, whose packages are being persistently prepared by opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s team. Nobody asked Belarusians again. And this political impotence is really annoying.
Vika Biran is an author and LGBTQ activist from Minsk currently living in exile in Berlin. Like many Belarusians this past week, she had fun watching different planes carefully circle the territory of Belarus on flightradar24.com, a real-time airline traffic tracking service.
Vika Biran is an author and LGBTQ activist from Minsk currently living in exile in Berlin. Like many Belarusians this past week, she had fun watching different planes carefully circle the territory of Belarus on flightradar24.com, a real-time airline traffic tracking service.
🇦🇹 Number of the week: 383 million
At first glance, Austria and the Belarusian opposition appear to be in line with each other — at least when it comes to their flag colours. The red and white flag is used by opponents of Lukashenko as an alternative to the red-green flag introduced by the dictator in 1995. GIF: Karolina Uskakovych.
At first glance, Austria and the Belarusian opposition appear to be in line with each other — at least when it comes to their flag colours. The red and white flag is used by opponents of Lukashenko as an alternative to the red-green flag introduced by the dictator in 1995. GIF: Karolina Uskakovych.
It may not come as a surprise that Russia and Cyprus are Belarus’ largest foreign  investors, but did you know that Austria comes third? In 2020, Austrian companies made a foreign direct investment of 383 million euros in Belarus, according to the Austrian National Bank. Relations between Vienna and Minsk are traditionally close,  and in 2019, Austria even became the first EU country to invite Lukashenko over for a visit after sanctions were lifted. 
On occasions like this, business and political circles repeat the romantic mantra that Austria can be “a bridge between the East and West,” a relationship that can bring a lot of good to both countries. Or: “Business is business,” and “politics is politics.” 
Following the events in Belarus, we clearly see that this romance has turned out to be rather toxic. Instead of exporting democracy to Belarus, Austrian businesses have helped stabilize the regime. When Lukashenko blocked the internet for protesters last summer, it was A1 Belarus, a subsidiary of  the partially state-owned Austrian Telekom, that pulled the trigger for him. And as Belarusian jails filled up with political prisoners, Raiffeisen, one of Austria’s largest banks, helped Belarus issue a 1,4 billion Eurobond. Money that allowed Lukashenko to finance his repressive apparatus.
“Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, do business,” could be a saying based on Habsburg traditions. Traditionally, Austrian politicians have no reservations against dictators or autocrats. Shortly after the war in Donbas started in 2014, then- Austrian president Heinz Fischer and the president of Austrian Economic Chamber Christoph Leitl invited Vladimir Putin to Vienna, where the Russian president joked about “good dictatorships.” 
And even now, after the whole world was following the hijacking of a plane and the tortured confessions of a dissident, the Austrian business chamber insisted to “keep in touch with difficult partners.” No surprise, Austria, – the most pro-Lukashenko-country within the EU – is not a big fan of sanctions. When problems come up, beautiful words about “bridges” quickly melt away like the snow in the Tyrolean alps in the spring. 
Belarus should be a lesson not only for Austrians, but politicians and entrepreneurs around the globe: There cannot be a “business is business” and “politics is politics” approach with dictatorial regimes. And it’s not simply about human rights, but basic risk calculation, too. A1 Belarus and Raiffeisen lost a lot of their reputation and credibility in Belarus. In authoritarian regimes, politics and business always go hand in hand.
Simone Brunner is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, mainly writing for DIE ZEIT (online), Profil and WOZ. Since 2013, she has developed a fable for Belarusian topics and has been travelling there on a regular basis.
Simone Brunner is a freelance journalist based in Vienna, mainly writing for DIE ZEIT (online), Profil and WOZ. Since 2013, she has developed a fable for Belarusian topics and has been travelling there on a regular basis.
🇱🇹 Belarus’ regime: A wildfire, not a stove
Belarusian and Lithuanian protesters expressed their solidarity with captured Roman Protasevich by throwing paper planes in the yard of the Belarusian embassy in Vilnius. Photo: lrytas.lt.
Belarusian and Lithuanian protesters expressed their solidarity with captured Roman Protasevich by throwing paper planes in the yard of the Belarusian embassy in Vilnius. Photo: lrytas.lt.
If you ever thought that a repressive dictatorial regime in the middle of Europe could remain safely contained within its borders and never spill over into your own backyard, think again because you were bloody wrong. 
That’s a lesson some of us had to learn the hard way last week after the Belarusian dictator hijacked a Ryanair plane filled with mostly EU citizens — many of whom were Lithuanian. Although Lithuania – along with the rest of the Baltics and Poland – is known to be the most proactive inside the EU to call for tough sectoral sanctions on Belarus, most citizens could have never imagined that the closed-off repressive regime next door would ever affect their daily lives. 
For a long time they regarded Lukashenko as a dictator, but one who could keep the country under control and away from Russia. Such views began to change after last year’s unprecedented protests and crackdown. But now, the hijacking of a civil plane, registered in Poland, belonging to an Irish company on its flight from one EU capital – Athens – to another – Vilnius, is testament to the fact that Lukashenko’s regime could bubble over into the West. 
After all, the degrading dictatorships of the “Wild East’‘ are not as far away as some Western Europeans may think. And conducting business-as-usual relations with Minsk and Moscow only brings them closer. The most vital question remains: will Western European governments finally follow-through with the proposals of the Baltic States, Poland and the Belarusian opposition in severely sanctioning Lukashenko and holding him accountable for his crimes? 
It’s time for European policies and actions of real confrontation that will pressure and isolate these dictatorships, help people fight them, and disable them from repressing their own citizens and assaulting us. 
If we don’t face this current challenge seriously now, or if our attempts end up half-hearted or short-lived  once again – there will be new challenges and attacks on all of us; even more violent, impudent and dangerous than before.
Vytautas Bruveris is the political commentator of Lithuanian newspaper “Lietuvos rytas” and the online news portals delfi.lt and lrytas.lt. As a graduated historian, he knows that history tends to repeat itself in unpleasant ways if we haven’t properly learned from our mistakes the first time.
Vytautas Bruveris is the political commentator of Lithuanian newspaper “Lietuvos rytas” and the online news portals delfi.lt and lrytas.lt. As a graduated historian, he knows that history tends to repeat itself in unpleasant ways if we haven’t properly learned from our mistakes the first time.
🇺🇦 Burning the last bridge to Russia?
Bridge over the Volga. Photo: Miroslav Fedurco, flickr.com, (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Bridge over the Volga. Photo: Miroslav Fedurco, flickr.com, (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, Belarus has been playing the role of a “false friend” to  Ukraine. Although it was clear to Kyiv from the beginning that Moscow’s influence on Lukashenko is enormous, the government agreed to choose Minsk as the international negotiations site to settle the war in the country’s East. 
Why? Ukraine was still in need of an informal bridge to Russia, politically – but also economically.
“When it came to trade issues, it was more convenient for Ukraine to regulate them  via Belarus,” Petro Oleshshuk, a political scientist at Kyiv’s Shevchenko University, told Weekly Focus. After partial bans on direct oil and electricity supplies from Russia and the abolition of direct flights between Kyiv and Moscow, Belarus became the crucial transit point between the two war parties.
Now the situation is rapidly changing. Two days after the Ryanair incident, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced an immediate flight ban and prohibited the import of electricity from Belarus (and Russia) until October. At the same time, the calls to relocate the Donbas negotiations from Minsk are becoming louder and stronger.
The recent Protasevich case seems to have become a tipping point for Ukraine on Belarus. Official contact between the two countries has been continuously shut down since the beginning of the protests in August 2020. Kyiv has not recognized the results of the Belarusian presidential elections and has joined parts of the EU sanctions.
“It was only a matter of time before the relationship broke up completely,” Oleshshuk emphasized. “With regard to its own security interests, Ukraine simply has to see Belarus as an informal part of Russia.” As Belarus becomes more and more isolated internationally, and further caught up in its deep dependency on Russia, many observers assume that Lukashenko will have  no other choice than to turn to Moscow even more.
Some Ukrainians, mostly in the pro-Russian minority, criticize these new tough-on Belarus policies. But the official state line speaks for itself. It seems Ukraine is burning its last bridge to Moscow, leaving no alternatives to its current Western orientation. And Belarus might lose its second-largest export consumer. The shift in power in the post-Soviet space continues.
Denis Trubetskoy was born in Sevastopol, Crimea, and works as a political correspondent for German media in Kyiv. He loves Belarusian potato pancakes, draniki, and writing in Georgian restaurants.
Denis Trubetskoy was born in Sevastopol, Crimea, and works as a political correspondent for German media in Kyiv. He loves Belarusian potato pancakes, draniki, and writing in Georgian restaurants.
🇩🇪 1 question to… Thorsten Benner
Thorsten Benner is a German political scientist, co-founder and director of the non-profit think tank Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. Photo: GPPi.
Thorsten Benner is a German political scientist, co-founder and director of the non-profit think tank Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. Photo: GPPi.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy approach of containment through economic involvement is often criticized as too soft and pragmatic when it comes to confronting dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. 
Mr. Benner, how has Merkel shaped the EU’s sanctions policy towards countries like Belarus and Russia during her terms of office – and what changes could be expected if the German Greens were to co-determine foreign policy in a new government after this year’s Bundestag elections?
On sanctions on the Kremlin, Angela Merkel has consistently pursued a middle ground, trying to bring together competing impulses in Germany and across Europe. Both governing parties, Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), are split on how to approach Russia. Within the Christian Democrats (CDU), for example, there are those like Norbert Röttgen (Chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee) who call for a harder approach whereas Michael Kretschmer, prime minister of Saxony, is among the key voices calling for a moderate stance. 
These divisions are mirrored within the EU — with the Baltics and Poland on a tougher end — and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary favoring a softer path. That the EU (under unanimity requirements) has managed to keep the sanctions regime on the Kremlin over Ukraine in place since 2014 is also Merkel’s achievement. It’s very much unclear whether she could have got the EU to act tougher on Russia even if she tried. The weakness of her approach was rather that she pursued business as usual on projects such as North Stream 2 and that she didn’t make much of an effort to go against the Kremlin’s willing enablers within Germany’s and Europe’s professional classes. 
On Belarus, Merkel seems to favour “tough and decisive” economic sanctions, according to a statement on Monday. You can argue that those came too late and are not tough enough, but maybe part of Merkel’s hesitation was not to push Lukashenko closer to the Kremlin. 
The Greens would push for harder sanctions, but it is unclear whether they would be able to get full support from their coalition partners in the future government and, more importantly, whether they would be able to shift consensus within the EU towards a tougher stance. But a Green chancellor going against high-profile projects such as North Stream 2 and against enablers of authoritarian regimes within Germany would send a signal that it’s not business as usual on the for-profit front.
Christian-Zsolt Varga is the Coordinating Editor at n-ost with a focus on European cross-border publications. He still remembers the high hopes towards Merkel and the EU the Hungarian civil society and opposition had in the early 2010s.
Christian-Zsolt Varga is the Coordinating Editor at n-ost with a focus on European cross-border publications. He still remembers the high hopes towards Merkel and the EU the Hungarian civil society and opposition had in the early 2010s.
Author's pick: What we were reading
Hijacking Western Complacency |  Project Syndicate
Is EU Concerned? (@ISEUConcerned) | Twitter
Targeting Raman Pratasevich may help Belarus disrupt the protest networks - The Washington Post
How the Belarus-Ryanair Incident Changed the World - The Atlantic
Closed Air and Deep Concern. What Sanctions Ukraine Can Impose On Belarus and Why It Won't - Hromadske (in Russian)
Editing & Proofreading: Lucy Martirosyan / Production: Kateryna Kovalenko
Editing & Proofreading: Lucy Martirosyan / Production: Kateryna Kovalenko
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