Have Sanctions Against Belarus Actually Changed Anything?

Belarus is likely to face serious international consequences for its recent actions – but, it's unclear if they'll have any effect.

Ok, so what’s going on with Belarus?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with Belarus’ exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, today and told her the UK “is on your side” in the fight against the current Belarusian government.

But, Tsikhanouskaya confirmed to reporters that she did not discuss “concrete” actions for the UK to take against Belarus.

She has already urged western countries to toughen up their current restrictions against her home country and said if the UK offered further assistance, she was “sure” it would help.

Belarus, often described as Europe’s last dictatorship, has come under intensified scrutiny following new allegations from Belarusian Olympic athlete Kristina Timanovskaya.

The sprinter claimed she was taken to Tokyo’s airport by Belarusian officials against her will, after refusing to take part in extra competitions and publicly criticising her team’s coaches.

She released an emotional video pleading for help online, triggering international outcry.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya claimed she had been taken to the Tokyo airport against her will.
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya claimed she had been taken to the Tokyo airport against her will.
Issei Kato via Reuters

The International Olympic Committee has since launched an investigation into her claims and the athlete has been offered a humanitarian visa by Poland.

Both the EU and the US have condemned Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and accused him of “repression”.

Concerns over Belarus’ authoritarian leadership have escalated even further as Vitaly Shishov, the head of a campaign group which assists Belarus exiles, was found dead in the neighbouring country of Ukraine on Tuesday.

Police have now opened an official murder inquiry and an NGO which helps those who flee the country – the Belarusian House – has even accused Minsk of a “planned operation”.

Belarus has faced sanctions before, right?

But, this is not the first time the international community has spoken out against the Lukashenko administration, which has been in power since 1994.

While restrictions from the EU and US have been in place almost continuously for the last 20 years, the latest sanctions meant there were now limitations on 166 people and 15 entities linked to Belarus.

Sanctions increased last year when Lukashenko alleged he had secured electoral victory and took his sixth term in office, despite widespread claims that the election was rigged.

Widespread protests broke out in Belarus while the EU member states agreed the election was “neither free nor fair” and refused to recognise the results of the election.

This was backed by the US, the UK and Canada – but Lukashenko was still formally inaugurated in September last year after arresting 35,000 protesters in Belarus.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
Alexei Nikolsky via Getty Images

So what’s the latest?

Last October, the EU announced another significant bundle of sanctions against Belarus, blaming the country’s human rights violations and the repression of its citizens and the media.

Lukashenko was also excluded from his role as chairman on the Belarusian branch of the International Olympic Committee in December.

In May, lawyers in Germany also announced Lukashenko would be put on trial if he were to set foot in the country.

It had little effect. In June, the EU acted a fourth time and initiated yet another set of new restrictions after a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was forced to land in Belarus so a dissident journalist could be arrested.

Will these sanctions actually work?

But, no matter what actions the international community takes, it might not make a difference, according to some specialists.

Data analysis of worldwide sanctions dating back to 1995 from DW, a German news outlet, showed around a third of travel bans were successful, while financial restrictions were only successful 41 percent of the time.

Clara Portela, from the EU Institute for Security Studies, told the outlet: “The idea that you impose sanctions on a target in order to bring about a change in behaviour is not always true.

“And the idea that sanctions actually bring about this change in behaviour is also not true.”

Still, there may be leeway for the EU to tighten its sanctions so they have a greater impact.

For instance, the latest financial sanctions do not touch on the state-owned Development Bank of Belarus, which is the only bank with Eurobonds – meaning EU investors can still buy bonds there.

But, it’s important to note that Belarus has support from its closest ally Russia, both in the international sphere and financially.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Lukashenko this y
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Lukashenko this y
Alexei Nikolsky via Getty Images

Back in May, Lukashenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Beluarusian economy was “moving normally” despite the western nations who “want to cause us trouble”.

Just last month, Lukashenko thanked Putin for the “very serious support” by helping his nation weather the economic blow caused by sanctions, while his Russian counterpart described Belarus was “a reliable and stable partner”.


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