The EU does not accept the results of the Belarusian election

A healthy decision, but one which is nonetheless risky, argues Théo Boucart.

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The EU does not accept the results of the Belarusian election
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discusses with EU leaders. Photo Credit: European Union, Audiovisual Service of the European Commission

The European Union decided on Wednesday 19 August that it does not recognise Alexander Lukashenko’s victory in the Belarusian presidential election. The decision was motivated by the demonstrations that the country has witnessed for the past ten days, which have been violently repressed by the regime. The EU’s choice could turn the Belarusian crisis geopolitical.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusian citizens have been demonstrating relentlessly since Sunday 9 August, when the country saw yet another presidential election tarnished by fraud. The EU has decided to position itself clearly in favour of the protesters and the opposition.

On Wednesday 19 August, the 27 member states’ leaders held a video conference to discuss the tense situation in Belarus where the regime is swinging between violently repressing the protests, and extending its hand towards demonstrators, especially striking workers.

In the conclusions of the meeting, the EU once again condemned the election as “neither free nor fair”. It also refused to recognise President Lukashenko’s landslide re-election, which it had not done during an earlier meeting between foreign ministers on 14 August.

The text of the conclusions reads as follows: “The EU has been following the developments in Belarus very closely and with increasing concern. The 9 August elections were neither free nor fair, therefore we do not recognise the results.”

The EU also expressed its full solidarity with the anti-Lukashenko demonstrators, and promised new sanctions against the regime in Minsk, all the while calling for dialogue with Lukashenko: “The people of Belarus have a right to determine their future. The members of the European Council express their clear solidarity with the people of Belarus in their desire to exercise their fundamental democratic rights. The members of the European Council condemn the disproportionate and unacceptable violence displayed by the state authorities against peaceful protesters. [...] The EU will shortly impose sanctions against a substantial number of individuals responsible for violence, repression and the falsification of election results. [...] The EU fully supports proposals for dialogue in Belarus and is ready to provide assistance to further them.”

The EU’s statements respond positively to demands from the Belarusian opposition and its leading figure Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who has been considered the real winner of the election. In a video message, Tsikhanovskaya had urged European leaders not to recognise the fraudulent election results. A crucial push for the EU reaching this position came from Germany which holds the rotating EU Council presidency, but also indirectly from outside the EU from the UK, which had announced on 17 August that it does not accept the outcome of the elections.

A healthy position to take

The EU may usually be timid and divided on questions of foreign policy, but this time the Union demonstrated its unity in the defence of its fundamental values like rule of law, pluralism and the right to protest.

Nonetheless, the EU has only achieved this unity in its dealings with countries outside the club. Within the EU’s own borders, Brussels is pointing its finger at certain Central European countries for their dangerous drift towards authoritarianism, but it has not been able to take actions that reflect the gravity of the situation.

The European engagement on Belarus has in particular been encouraged by countries at the EU’s eastern border, like Lithuania, Latvia and especially Poland. The EU institutions have set their sights on the latter country while the Law and Justice party, which has little regard for respecting values enshrined in European treaties, has been in government. Warsaw’s activism on the Belarusian question might perhaps help people forget Poland’s own track record in protecting democracy. Among other things, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia have suggested political mediation of the situation, an option vigorously opposed by Alexander Lukashenko.

The imposition of targeted sanctions is one of the EU’s solutions for trying to make the Minsk regime buckle. However, some are already doubting the relevance of the EU’s position on Belarus. In an opinion piece in Politico Europe, the Belarusian activist Maryia Sadouskaya-Komlach argues that the sanctions won’t solve the problem: “Nearly every vote in Belarus since 1996 has been followed by EU sanctions — and yet President Alexander Lukashenko’s repressive regime remains in place, once again deploying violence in order to steal an election.”

Other observers have estimated that whatever the EU does, Russia will benefit from the situation. Among these has been Galia Ackerman, a historian and translator specialised in Russia, whose piece in the French newspaper Le Figaro nonetheless predicts that Lukashenko’s regime is destined for collapse.

Towards a ‘geopoliticisation’ of the Belarusian crisis?

While the “Belarusian crisis” can above all be explained by internal, non-geopolitical factors like the growing number of citizens aspiring for democracy and a new kind of prosperity for their country, the EU’s positioning could lead to new tensions with Russia and Vladimir Putin. In the past days, Putin has warned the EU against ‘interfering’ in the internal affairs of Belarus.

It has to be said that the Kremlin chief is one of the rare allies for President Lukashenko, who appealed for help from Russia to help ‘resolve the problem with the demonstrations’. In multiple phone calls last weekend, Putin reportedly assured Lukashenko of Russian support under the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia could therefore use clauses in the treaty to justify a military intervention in Belarus to save the regime. Reports of Russian vehicles moving towards or even into Belarus have fuelled suspicion that such an operation could already be underway.

Some European countries’ leaders, like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, have demonstrated that they understand the essential role that Russia plays in the Belarusian conundrum very well, as they have prioritised Vladimir Putin as a negotiating partner.

All in all, the EU’s position expressed on Wednesday could have non-negligible geopolitical repercussions. The outcomes of the demonstrations will offer further indications about the power relations between the EU and Russia in Eastern Europe. For the moment, however, Lukashenko does not seem to be showing signs of departure.

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