When Sanctions Work

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, left, welcomes visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

Almost as soon as the United Nations Security Council voted in June for a new sanctions resolution against Iran, doubters questioned whether it would have any real impact on Iran’s behavior. Indeed, some analysts have argued, sanctions never really work against their intended targets; they only harm average citizens, sometimes inadvertently help the targeted regime and demobilize the international community with the false sense that at least it is “doing something.”

Although scholars argue endlessly over just how ineffective sanctions are, all agree that in some exceptional cases, sanctions have worked. Positive examples are relatively rare (the most optimistic researchers claim no more than a 34 percent success rate1), and may have succeeded for different reasons, but they include the apartheid regime in South Africa and the Communist government in Poland.

There is another success story that gets comparatively little attention: Belarus. Beginning in 2002, a sanctions campaign led by the United States but with broad European support against the Belarusian regime worked, exacting significant political concessions without harming the welfare of the people. Run by the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenka, Belarus is a country of ten million people that emerged in 1992 from the detritus of the Soviet Empire. Bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, Belarus has had a sorely strained relationship with western countries (and even with Russia). Known as “Europe’s last dictator”, Lukashenka lords over a Soviet-accented kleptocracy, having worked to hobble an emerging free-market democracy since his election in 1994. Belarus has little in the way of natural resources. A major source of revenue for the state, and Lukashenka personally, has been arms sales, including sales to Saddam-era Iraq, Syria, Venezuela, Sudan and Iran.

By practically any measure Belarus under Lukashenka is one nasty place. About a decade ago, four prominent opposition figures “disappeared” for crossing the regime; their whereabouts are still unknown.2 In response, the United States and the European Union imposed a common ban on travel to the West by the officials implicated in the “disappearances.” In 2002, the United States joined the European Union in imposing additional visa bans, including a ban on Lukashenka himself, following Minsk’s closure of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) human rights monitoring mission in the country. The visa ban was lifted the following year, when Belarusian authorities allowed the office to re-open. And in 2004, the U.S. Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the bipartisan Belarus Democracy Act, ratcheting up the pressure by declaring, “[T]here is no place in a Europe whole and free for a regime of this kind.”

The West responded with more serious sanctions against the regime in 2006 following a rigged presidential election and a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. The United States led the effort in a campaign carefully coordinated with the European Union, imposing both a visa ban and an asset freeze against several dozen top Belarusian officials, again including Lukashenka himself, who were deemed responsible for the government’s human rights abuses, fraudulent elections, violence and massive corruption. The targeted nature of the sanctions avoided imposing hardships on the population while it underscored the West’s resolve that individuals would be held responsible for their malfeasance. By forcing officials to suffer personal costs for facilitating Lukashenka’s abuses, the sanctions sought to sow discord and doubt among his top lieutenants.

Getting the European Union on board with this effort, while not easy, was essential to presenting a united front. This meant cutting Lukashenka off from his favorite ski vacation spots in the Alps and from his Western bank accounts. Those around him were similarly affected and, in some cases, embarrassed when their credit cards provided by Western banks no longer worked. On several occasions, the United States (although not the European Union) ratcheted up the sanctions when the Lukashenka regime dug in its heels or engaged in backsliding.

The minimal step required of the regime to ease the sanctions was the release of six political prisoners, including Aleksandr Kazulin, who ran a defiant campaign against Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election. For several years, Washington and Brussels made clear their readiness for a “selective engagement” or “step-by-step” approach: In return for the regime’s easing up on repression and freeing the prisoners, the West was prepared to lift sanctions and move toward positive engagement.

The regime did not begin to respond until January 2008, however. The spur was the November 2007 imposition of additional sanctions by the United States (acting alone and after warning Minsk that additional sanctions were forthcoming if it didn’t comply) against Belneftekhim, the state-run Belarusian oil-refining enterprise in which Lukashenka himself reportedly had a stake. Skeptics at the time scoffed that sanctions against one conglomerate that conducts little business in the United States would have no impact. But by slapping an asset freeze on Belneftekhim, the United States found Lukashenka’s weak spot: the spot where he kept his wallet. While the direct leverage produced by the freeze was minimal, the Treasury Department’s action stained Belneftekhim’s reputation and increased risk for any international financial institution doing business with it. In effect, the indirect power of the sanction dried up its financing.

Within two months of the asset freeze on Belneftekhim, an authoritative representative of the Lukashenka government quietly approached the U.S. Embassy in Minsk to ask what the American response would be if the regime released its political prisoners. Note that the regime approached the American embassy, not any European embassy, because it was the United States that kept ratcheting up the pressure against the government, backed up its threats when the regime continued to stall and whose political figures, from the President on down, used the bully pulpit to shine a light on authoritarianism and corruption in Belarus. Lukashenka and his cronies wanted to get out from under that bright light and free themselves from the pressure from sanctions, and the only way to do so was to release the political prisoners.

Within 48 hours of the American reply to the regime’s inquiry, the first of the prisoners was released. Most of the others soon followed. Unfortunately, the unwelcome intervention of one European Embassy in Minsk delayed the release of Kazulin, the most sensitive of the political prisoner cases. German Ambassador to Belarus Gebhardt Weiss had proposed to the Lukashenka regime that Germany take both Kazulin and his very ill wife, but Kazulin rejected this offer because he deemed it virtual exile. The intervention of Weiss, who never consulted with Kazulin before making the offer to the regime, may thus have delayed Kazulin’s release from prison. Irina Kazulina, who was too ill to travel anyway, died several weeks later after a long but courageous bout with cancer.

The U.S. government, worried that Kazulin’s release had been vetoed rather than delayed, tightened the sanctions noose once again in early March 2008. This prompted a furious response from the regime, as it kicked out the American Ambassador and forced the U.S. Embassy to scale down its staffing level from more than thirty Americans to five (the State Department responded in kind, though on a smaller scale, to the Belarusian embassy in Washington). To this day, the United States still does not have an ambassador in Minsk (nor does Belarus have one in Washington), a reflection of the continued poor state of relations.3 Eventually, however, in August 2008, Belarusian authorities did release Kazulin, though six months after his wife died. He had been allowed only three days out of prison to attend her funeral in March of that year.

Kazulin’s release marked the freeing of Belarus’s last political prisoners, at least in 2008. Although it took a considerable investment of time and patience, sanctions made this happen. Based on the regime’s overture to the U.S. Embassy in January 2008 and other information we had at the time, we have no doubt that pressure from the United States, supported in the main by the European Union, secured the prisoners’ release.

Unfortunately, the European Union’s appetite for maintaining pressure on Lukashenka was weak at best. Following Kazulin’s release and several weeks after a deeply flawed parliamentary election in September 2008, the European Union voted to suspend all of its sanctions against the regime, a suspension it has renewed several times since. (The United States also eased some sanctions immediately after Kazulin’s release, but not all of them; and it avoided the unfortunate timing that marked the European Union’s decision, which followed widely criticized parliamentary elections.) EU leaders will decide early this fall whether to re-impose sanctions or continue suspension of them.

Some members of the European Union were concerned that continued sanctions against Belarus would drive it into Russia’s embrace, perhaps even leading to a political union, even though U.S.-EU combined sanctions were based on the way the regime treated its own people, not on its relations with Moscow. European business and financial interests also played a role, even though there is not much Western investment in Belarus. And yet the concern in Europe that the West was driving Minsk and Moscow closer together was fundamentally flawed, since it was Russia’s own policy toward Minsk that was in fact pushing Belarus away from Russia. The Russians were too busy trying to milk Belarus for all it was worth, including trying to take over key Belarusian assets and infrastructure by using the price of oil as a tool against Lukashenka, to understand that an extended hand approach instead would have nullified in large measure the effectiveness of sanctions against Belarus. Moscow’s heavy-handed approach at exerting what it saw as its sphere of influence convinced Lukashenka that union with Russia would only limit his own authority.

Indeed, Russia unintentionally made Western sanctions more effective than they otherwise would have been. Rather than offering Lukashenka relief from Western pressure over the years, Russia pressured him to hand over Belarusian assets or face higher energy costs and demonstrated its seriousness by cutting off oil shipments in 2007. They significantly reduced the flow again this June, but Lukashenka surprised Moscow by claiming that Minsk was owed $70 million more in unpaid transit fees. Had Russia opened its doors to Lukashenka and continued to provide him with low priced energy, Western sanctions would have had much less bite. Instead, Lukashenka faced pressure no matter which way he turned—sanctions from the West and a big bear breathing down his neck from the east. With the West, he knew the only way to ease the pressure was to comply with the demand to release political prisoners. With Russia, the only way to improve relations was to sell off significant parts of his country and its infrastructure, and he was not prepared to do that. Thus the West has Russia to thank for making its sanctions policy as effective as it was. (Lukashenka’s offer of safe haven to former Kyrgyzstan leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev, despised by Moscow for his double-crossing over the Manas airbase in 2009, and his balking on joining a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan, are certainly not going to improve Minsk’s relationship with Russia.)4

Those who argue that sanctions against Belarus didn’t work, that the regime released its political prisoners for other reasons, should look at how the situation in Belarus has unfolded since the European Union lifted them (most U.S. sanctions remain in place).5 Beyond the European Union’s initial October 2008 decision to suspend sanctions, a number of EU member states have engaged Lukashenka directly, ending his former status as a diplomatic pariah. The European Union invited him to a Prague Summit unveiling its Eastern Partnership in May 2009 (to the relief of the Czech hosts, Lukashenka passed on the invitation). Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and other European leaders have traveled to Minsk to seek Lukashenka’s favor, and Lukashenka and his five-year-old son visited Rome, where they met with Pope Benedict XVI in April 2009.

But despite this open-handed approach and European offers of engagement, the situation inside Belarus has deteriorated.6 The government has increased pressure against opposition leaders, arrested civil society activists, violently broken up protests, harassed the Polish minority and denied registration to newspapers. In certain respects, the regime has changed the tack of its repression: It has avoided high-profile political-prisoner cases, which are easy for the international community to focus on and cause image problems for the regime, though that is not to imply that there are no political prisoner cases at all. Indeed,  make no mistake: The general political and human rights environment has not improved and will likely only get worse as Belarus gets closer to its presidential election later this year or early next.

In response, the European Union has barely voiced any concern. When it has spoken up, it has done so largely in regard to the controversy involving the Polish minority in Belarus, with Warsaw, not surprisingly, leading the charge. Poland, however, was also an early advocate of lifting sanctions out of misplaced concern for the impact they could have on Belarus-Russia relations. Most European observers in Minsk would agree that the European Union’s efforts at establishing dialogue with the regime have failed, though some would argue that an engagement policy must be designed for the long term.

In fact, the current Western approach has signaled to Lukashenka that he can get away with being a corrupt authoritarian demagogue in the heart of Europe with little cost. The vision of a “Europe whole and free” used to reflect the consensus that Europe would not abide such a leader. Unfortunately, there is no appetite among EU member states to re-impose sanctions against the regime for its continued abuse of its citizens’ rights, even though sanctions (that is, the “fist”) are virtually the only thing that gets Lukashenka’s attention.

Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, has attempted to stiffen the collective EU spine by raising the stakes for Minsk. He has said the European Union expects Belarus to abolish the death penalty, end repression and conduct democratic presidential elections. Predictably, Lukashenka has rejected the European Union’s concept of a “roadmap for reforms”, pointedly noting that Belarus “wouldn’t fall on its knees before you, Russia or the United States.” Thus, the real question remains whether Brussels will decide on consequences to this intransigence or simply gloss over the fact that Lukashenka embraces the moniker of the last dictator of Europe.

Belarus is vastly different from Iran, obviously. But the lessons from the sanctions imposed against Lukashenka—targeted, coordinated for the most part with the European Union and escalating—are worth heeding as the international community continues to struggle to figure out how to confront a stubborn and increasingly dangerous regime in Teheran. Sanctions can work when they find the sweet spot in the target regime’s vulnerable areas; when effective unanimity closes off escape routes from pain; and when sanctions can be modulated in swift response to regime behavior. Experience suggests that unless all three conditions exist simultaneously, sanctions will be ineffective and even counterproductive. These are the parameters we ought to keep in mind when looking to Iran.

David J. Kramer is senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and a deputy assistant secretary responsible for Ukraine from 2005 to 2008. Damon Wilson is director of the International Security program at the Atlantic Council. This article was originally published by The American Interest magazine. Photo credit: AP Photo.

1See Gary Hufbauer, Jeffrey Schott, Kimberly Elliot and Barbara Oegg, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, 3rd Edition (Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2007).

2In a sign of growing Russian displeasure with the Belarusian leader, Russia’s Gazprom-owned television station NTV has broadcast a three-part “documentary” about the disappearances and linked them to Lukashenka, suggesting they were victims of a government-run hit team. Relations between Moscow and Minsk during the summer of 2010 have reached an unprecedentedly tense state.

3Two other examples reflect the continued poor state of relations. First was the decision not to invite any Belarusian representatives to President Obama’s April Nuclear Security Summit, even though Belarus gave up its nuclear weapons soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Second, the Obama White House announced in June that it was continuing sanctions against the “government of Belarus and other persons that undermine democratic processes or institutions in Belarus.” Both decisions deserve to be applauded.

4Under Russian pressure and after the offer of a massive Russian loan guarantee, Bakiyev agreed to end the American use of Manas Air Base to support operations in Afghanistan, only to reverse his decision when Washington agreed to pay significantly more rent for the use of the facilities.

5Some Europeans argue that it was quiet engagement with the regime, not sanctions, that secured the release of the political prisoners. See “Swedish Mediation Frees Imprisoned Belarus, Releases Military Vehicles”, Radio Sweden, February 16, 2009. See also Yaraslau Kryvoi, “Why European Union Trade Sanctions Do Not Work”, Harvard European Law Working Paper No. 4 (2007). An excellent debate between two European experts, Pavol Demes and Sabine Fischer, on how to approach Belarus can be found in “To Engage or Not to Engage: The Policy Dilemma of Dealing with Belarus”, German Marshall Fund of the United States, June 18, 2010.

6For a good summary of the recent decline in the political situation, see “Second Issue of BISS Trends“, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (April 2010); see also BIIM’s “Monitoring Report on Developments in Belarus”, November 2009-June 2010.

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