Today’s big question

Belarus: what would it take to topple Lukashenko’s ‘rogue regime at the heart of Europe’?

Amid calls for tighter sanctions some say the International Criminal Court should step in

International concern is growing over the situation in Belarus after an activist who helped dissenters from the regime was found dead near his home in neighbouring Ukraine.

The BBC reports that a murder inquiry has been launched after Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a park in Kyiv, a day after he failed to return from a jog.

Shishov was one of many Belarusians who left the country as the security forces violently suppressed protests following the disputed “re-election” of President Alexander Lukashenko last August.

Among those who fled was opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a day after she had claimed victory in the election in which she had stood in place of her husband, who was detained in March 2020.

Tikhanovskaya, who now lives in exile in Lithuania with her children, flew to London for talks with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week, which were held just hours after Shishov’s body was discovered.

Following the meeting, she said Johnson had assured her that the UK would help create “multiple points of pressure” on Lukashenko's government. The measures could include assistance for journalists forced to flee the country, and for democracy campaigners and charities, she said, while Johnson reassured her the UK was “very much” on the opposition’s side.

The meeting came in the same week that Belarusian athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused orders to fly home early from the Olympics, before competing. The sprinter boarded a flight from Japan to Vienna this morning after voicing fears for her safety. She said she was forced to pack her belongings and driven to Tokyo's airport last week, after criticising her coaches.

Tsimanouskaya was given police protection before being moved to the Polish embassy in Tokyo, where she stayed until travelling to the airport this morning. “I love my country and I didn't betray my country,” she said.

International attention is turning to how – and indeed whether – Lukashenko can be removed. The Financial Times describes Lukashenko’s Belarus as a “full-blown rogue regime at the heart of Europe”, adding that: “three decades after the Berlin Wall fell, the Belarus regime looks like a historical anomaly”.

The paper says up to 35,000 Belarusians have been arrested since the disputed election last year, with allegations of torture “rife”.

Some have claimed that Western sanctions only serve to drive Lukashenko “into Russian president Vladimir Putin’s arms, while leaving Belarusians worse off”, says the FT, but opposition figures are calling for more severe measures.

Tikhanovskaya has spent recent days urging Washington and London to tighten sanctions. “They should pay heed,” says the newspaper.

The exile said European sanctions contained “loopholes”, and urged greater co-ordination with Washington. The UK’s sanctions – including travel bans and asset freezes on senior Belarusian officials – currently target just 99 people and nine organisations.

Therefore, says the FT, the EU is “to be commended” for “imposing sanctions not just on individuals, but sectoral measures that ban imports of Belarusian oil products and potash sales – among the country’s most lucrative exports”.

Writing for the Daily Mail, Edward Lucas describes Lukashenko as “a tyrant who makes even Vladimir Putin look tame”.

Lucas is less than optimistic for the future, arguing that Tikhanovskaya and her “brave fellow exiles” have “no strategy to deal with the man behind the megalomaniacal regime that has blighted their homeland for more than 20 years – and neither, it seems, do we”.

The Guardian points to the high numbers of Belarusians who have fled the country, including many from the “booming” tech sector in Minsk, which was once an organisational hub for protests against the regime.

“Giving up, for now, on the prospect of democratic reform, many other young professionals have taken the same decision,” it says. “As European and US sanctions continue to be ineffective, and Vladimir Putin stands ready to offer assistance to the regime as required, who can blame them?”

It adds that Lukashenko “will not be sorry to wave goodbye as he recreates Belarusian society in the oppressive image of a Soviet satellite state”.

Clara Portela, from the EU Institute for Security Studies, warns that sanctions are rarely effective. Speaking to HuffPost, she said: “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.”

Then there is the fact that the regime has received help to counter the damage done by sanctions.

President Alexander Lukashenko – who has been nicknamed “Europe's last dictator” – has been in power for 27 years. Last month, he thanked Putin for the “very serious support” by helping his nation weather the economic blow caused by sanctions.

Therefore, argues the EU Observer, with “further violence and bloodshed ahead”, the international community should call on the International Criminal Court to act.

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