On June 21, the U.S. State Department, U.K. and Canadian governments and EU’s European External Action Service, released a joint statement announcing new sanctions against the Belarusian regime of Alexander Lukashenko.
“We are united in our deep concern regarding the Lukashenko regime’s continuing attacks on human rights, fundamental freedoms, and international law,” the statement read.
“Today, we have taken coordinated sanctions action in response to the May 23rd forced landing of a commercial Ryanair flight between two EU member states and the politically motivated arrest of journalist Raman Pratasevich and his companion Sofia Sapega, as well as to the continuing attack on human rights and fundamental freedoms. We are committed to support the long-suppressed democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus and we stand together to impose costs on the regime for its blatant disregard of international commitments.”
That same day, Belarusian state media addressed the sanctions without mentioning the Ryanair incident, arbitrary arrests or human rights more generally.
The Belta news agency quoted Belarusian Economic Minister Aleksandr Chervyakov as claiming that the sanctions were driven by economic, not “political” motives.
“Western sanctions are likely to be linked not to some political issues, but to the fact that the economy of Belarus has survived, while Europe has suffered huge losses due to the lockdown, Belarus' Economy Minister Aleksandr Chervyakov said in an interview to the ONT TV channel,” the article stated.
The article further quoted Chervyakov as saying that a reason for the new sanctions “is that economic issues were hidden under the pretext of the political ones.”
“If we analyze the global experience of applying sanctions, none of the sanctions have achieved their political goals,” he was quoted as saying. “But those sanctions have been hiding other things - issues related to the division of markets and the pushing out of competitors. We can see the same processes against Belarus today.”
These claims are false. As the joint statement by the U.S. U.K., Canada and EU stated explicitly, the new sanctions against Belarus were imposed because of the Ryanair incident and other violations of human rights and international norms.
Nor is Belarus much of a threat when it comes to economic competition. As Business News Europe (BNE) recently reported, the Belarusian economy is in critical condition. In addition to the ongoing protests against Lukashenko’s disputed re-election last August, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an economic toll on Belarus, as elsewhere.
Lukashenko dismissed the threat posed by the pandemic and, ignoring international criticism, did not introduce a lockdown. The country also suffered indirectly from the global economic downturn due to lower prices for its exports, including potash and chemical fertilizers.
And despite the friendly relationship between Moscow and Minsk, a tax dispute effectively ended what BNE called the “generous energy subsidies” Russia gave to Belarus.
BNE also noted that Belarus depends on imports for consumer goods – a factor the Belta article ignored.
“To compensate for these losses, there will be an urgent need to work hard on the domestic market, including on reducing production costs, and on import substitution,” BNE wrote.
Import substitution was a rallying cry in Russia after Western sanctions were imposed because of its intervention in Ukraine in 2014. But even there, in a country far more industrialized than Belarus, the results have been mixed.
While Russia is Belarus’ main trading partner, EU countries like Lithuania, Poland and Germany are also significant. So is Ukraine, which joined EU states in passing sanctions against Belarusian officials last November.
Although the Belta article downplays the significance of the new Western sanctions, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s reaction to the announcement of sanctions differed greatly from Belta's description.
“According to Aleksandr Chervyakov, Belarus takes the sanctions of the West calmly,” the Belta story stated.
However, according to The Associated Press, the Belarus Foreign Ministry called the sanctions “a declaration of economic war.”
The latest Western sanctions against Belarus were imposed after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair airliner traveling from Athens to Vilnius via Belarus to divert and land at Minsk International Airport due to a phony bomb threat.
After the plane landed, Belarusian police arrested opposition Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen, before allowing the plane to leave for its final destination.