Thursday, March 30, 2006

Edward Lucas

(from this week's European Voice)

Sanctions work a treat for dictatorships

Sanctions are a wonderful substitute for real politics. In my dim and distant youth, I belonged to the Young Liberals, a British political organisation that specialised in campaigning for a complete trade and cultural boycott of 'Apartheid South Africa'.

That usually meant harassing some hapless supermarket manager for daring to stock South African sherry or oranges. We got a tremendous glow of righteous self-satisfaction, but the effect on the creepy old racists of Pretoria was fairly minimal, I think.
In the aftermath of what seems from the outside to have been a very disappointing election result in Belarus, it is tempting to look for a nice new shiny policy - including tougher sanctions. But that would be a mistake.
For a start, it would have little effect. Belarus's stunted economy exports little in the way of consumer goods, so there's not much to boycott. (Its best export at the moment is giant tyres for earth-moving machinery and the people who buy such things are an unsentimental bunch, not much interested in the politics of post-Communist human rights.) Second, experience shows that the real effect of sanctions is to create profits for middle-men, not to rock regimes.
Even if we did boycott the bison-grass vodka, sausage, socks and other things that do occasionally make it onto western shelves, it would be a mistake. Ten years of freezing out Belarus haven't weakened the regime. If anything they have strengthened it, by increasing the sense of isolation on which dictatorship thrives. As one of my opposition friends, the Vitsebsk-based local activist Olga Karatch, noted recently, before Belarusian society can be transformed, it needs to be rebuilt. The country is still suffering to a much greater extent than any other former captive nation from the atomisation and disorientation created by the Soviet Union's rise and fall. People feel lost.
What we need is a policy that helps Belarusians find themselves in modern Europe - in culture and outlook at first, in economy and politics eventually. If it isolates the regime from the people too, that's an added bonus.
The best way to do that is to open our doors as widely as possible. Everything that encourages the free movement of people, goods and services across the border increases the number of autonomous decision-makers in the closed Belarusian society - and therefore opens it up.
I know that the commanding heights of the Belarusian economy are run by the ruling elite and its cronies. And it is true that they will make even more money if trade increases. But that's a price worth paying.
Trade will only grow slowly. But a quick practical scheme would be to offer plentiful scholarships to Belarusians wanting to study in the European Union. And we should do everything possible to increase sporting ties too.
The Kremlin's assessment of the Belarus elections was that they were splendidly free and fair - and anyone who says otherwise is a spy and should be locked up (I made that last bit up, but you get the drift). That highlights another reason for avoiding sanctions: they just force Belarus ever deeper into Russia's glutinous embrace.
Nobody's talking about sanctions against Russia, yet, but Vladimir Putin's idea of democracy is not much different from Lukashenko's (roughly: sit down, shut up, give me money). And they need the same approach.
The big strength of Western societies is that we are open. That's what we should use in the struggle against autocracy, in Minsk, Moscow and beyond: by demonstrating our openness, to trade, people and ideas.
# Edward Lucas is Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist.


Tobias Ljungvall said...

I was toying with the idea of sanctions against Belarus at the end of last year:

Mainly as means of increasing the temperature before the elections. I still think the prospect of losing up to 44 percent of exports may have made some people thinking. But now that the election is over I think I have sort of dropped the idea. For now.

The rationale of Olga and a lot of other people seems to be that change is impossible in the short-term perspective and therefore the West should only pursue long-term, indirect and subtle strategies. I am not convinced that this is optimal. Although I don't have the experience of you and other people from Soviet times, I think there is a difference in that a greater flow of information makes the Belarusian regime more vulnerable to direct approaches than for instance Brezhnev's society must have been. Therefore I for example still favour massive political sanctions (travel bans).

Best regards,
Tobias Ljungvall

Malcolm said...

Dear Edward,

Thanks for the steady flow of articles on Russia and especially this piece on Belarus. You may recall we were in contact in Moscow in the late 1990s when I
worked as researcher on Belarus for Human Rights Watch from Moscow. Following recent events in Belarus - hoping for, but not believing a 'revolution' possible
- I was moved to write an op-ed for the Moscow Times:

The sentiments in it are identical to your piece on Belarus - freer
travel, study and work in the EU for Belarusians - which is a reassuring coincidence. Perhaps the corridors of power in Brussels may actually be thinking, or may be prompted to think, along the same lines?

With regards,

Malcolm Hawkes

Edward Lucas said...

Thanks for both those. I have another idea now--a big conference on democracy in the post-Soviet space to be held the day before the G-8 summit in St Petersburg.

The G-7 leaders would stop off at this conference, preferably in Tallinn but possibly somewhere else in the region, on their way to St P. And among the other guests would be Milinkevic (ideally Zakayev but that might be stretching it....)