U.S., EU impose the right kind of sanctions on Belarus

I’m not a huge fan of sanctions.

In fact, I tend to fully agree with London Times’ Simon Jenkins when he wrote in 2008 “Sanctions are a war waged by cowards.” Typically sanctions are ineffective, target the wrong people and sometimes can be directly counter productive.

If you want to topple an autocratic power, you don’t do so by disempowering its people by crashing the national economy. But that is exactly the logic of economic sanctions. The theory goes that by making it illegal for governments and businesses to invest or trade with the country, the regime will grow weaker, and the people will blame their new hardship on their leaders and take them down. As nice as that sounds, autocratic and bad-behaving regimes always find money for themselves and their military (by stealing more from the people), which in fact leaves them even more powerful vis-a-vis the people.

Aside from South Africa, name one country on this list where economic sanctions brought about the end to a misbehaving regime: Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Afghanistan, Serbia, North Korea.

So why does the West use them? Because it’s something, and the thinking is that something is better than nothing. “Well, we don’t really want to invade them, and blockades are a bit impractical in a modern economy, so let’s just sanction them! If, they keep doing something we don’t want them to do, we’ll sanction them harder!”

Most dictators then use the sanctions as proof that the (Western) world is against the people and is trying to subjugate and impoverish them. Which, in a way, is technically accurate. It allows the regimes to point the finger at dissidents and Western-funded NGO’s and pro-democracy groups labeling them the agents of the oppression.

Logo for Belneftekhim, Belarusian state oil companySo how can you effectively pressure a regime without punishing its people? Well, it seems like the U.S. and EU have finally gotten creative enough to try. In response to the Belarusian regime’s brutal crackdown on the opposition during fraudulent elections in December, they have finally created a package of punishment and aid that might help. First, both have expanded travel restrictions and frozen financial assets of all Belarusian officials having anything to do with the crackdown. Second, the U.S. has imposed specific sanctions on the Belarusian state petroleum conglomerate, one of the regime’s biggest revenue sources. But, most importantly, all of these moves were combined with a $27.5 million increase in aid to Belarusian civil society groups, with the EU and Poland specifically doling out the majority of the new funds.

Still, this will likely not be enough to loosen Belarusian President Lukashenko’s grip on the country and it’s telling that the U.S. is doing most of the punishing and the least of the aiding (increasing it’s assistance by $4 million), some habits are just hard to break.

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