Personal-Financial.com: In a few weeks’ time, the EU foreign ministers want to decide on further sanctions against Belarus as a reaction to the forced plane landing and the arrest of the regime critic Roman Protassewitsch. What should they look like from the perspective of the opposition in exile?
PAWEL LATUSCHKO: We are calling for efficient and strong sanctions. If they are efficient enough, they can change the situation in Belarus in a short time. To this day, the European Union has only uttered words of solidarity and support. She did not use real instruments for influencing. This has caused a great wave of disappointment in my country. For ten months we have been trying to convince the EU that Alexander Lukashenko will not start negotiations. Only when he has a strong opponent will he find himself forced to accept a dialogue and step back.
What do you recommend specifically?
We advocate sanctions against certain economic sectors that Lukashenko has turned off the money. It is about targeted sanctions against his so-called wallets, against oligarchs who enrich themselves through corrupt systems. The target should also be the correspondence accounts of the Belarusian state banks in the EU, in which, for example, the dreaded special operations command of the militia, Omon, and other security organs involved in repression have their accounts. The sanctions should be strong enough to stop the mass repression in Belarus, free all those arbitrarily arrested, and allow new free elections to take place. These are the goals.
So do you think the EU is acting too slowly and hesitantly?
I ask what is the European Union advocating? For human rights, or for business that is paid for with Belarusian blood? We are currently experiencing the largest, widespread repression against a people in 40 years. 35,000 people have been arrested so far, including more than 500 journalists. Twelve people were killed or committed suicide and thousands were made political prisoners.
But are you denying Europe political will?
The European Union has had all of our proposals on the table for about six months – and concrete advances from individual EU countries. But in Paris and Berlin it was long believed that sanctions would cause economic damage to the Belarusian people. The EU should understand, however, that the population is willing to endure sanctions for a few months rather than living under the yoke of a dictator for many more years.
What sanctions are on their list?
Around 64 percent of the Belarusians surveyed advocate the most powerful sanctioning instrument, namely cutting Belarus off from the international SWIFT payment system. The second target would be the petroleum processing sector. A third important destination would be Belaruskali, one of the most important foreign exchange companies. From June 3, the USA will sanction state-owned companies in the oil processing industry and presumably people who have been involved in human rights abuses, corruption and election fraud. We also support the proposal by the German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz to stop gas transit through Belarus.
As far as is known, the deliberations of the EU foreign ministers also include the boycott of oil and fertilizer products. In addition to trade sanctions, do you also need financial sanctions to make a difference?
Yes that is correct. We have been waiting for ten months for Europe to really act. Europe is watching people being killed and raped in Belarus and doing nothing. Obviously, your own economic interests outweigh your own interests and not human lives in Belarus. Last summer, Belarusian Eurobonds were issued with the support of European banks and bought by European investment funds. At the time, important leaders of the protest movement were already in prison.
So should the EU also ban trading in Belarusian government bonds?
It’s important, but not critical. The point is to close new sources of finance to the regime. Punitive measures against the banks, which I have already mentioned, or the exclusion from SWIFT would be much more efficient solutions in this regard.
The economies of the EU and Belarus are not so closely intertwined that the EU would really suffer. How do you explain the reluctance?
The export of Belarusian goods to the West accounts for around 35 to 40 percent of total exports. This is considerable and important for the Belarusian economy. Restricting the transit of goods is also an important tool. The fate of Belarus rests in the hands of the people. Without the support of the EU and the US, however, it will take a very long time to fight for freedom. So that Europe can hear us better, we will block the border crossings between Poland and Belarus for transit out of the EU. We demand that Europe and Brussels move from words to actions.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is releasing a further $ 500 million in a large loan for his Belarusian counterpart. How much is Putin willing to pay to support Lukashenko?
Putin sees Belarus as a sphere of influence from Russia. He negotiates part of Lukashenko’s independence from Belarus. Financial support will depend on Lukashenko’s willingness to do so. So-called road maps are often mentioned, of which there are more than 30, and all of which belong to an integration plan. As far as we know, it is also about military cooperation, a common currency system or the unification of customs and other systems. European arguments that further sanctions will drive Lukashenko into Putin’s arms cannot therefore apply. It will happen that way too. If nothing changes, Belarus will lose its independence in two to three years. This is a strategic goal of the Kremlin, and Lukashenko is selling off his land.
What’s your own strategy? You have called on the people to queue up at ATMs. Do you want to break the banks?
No, this is just a tactic. Our strategy is to mobilize active protest actions. Because of the constant danger, people are afraid to take to the streets. There you get a penalty first and then a criminal case. In addition, the militia has been given permission to shoot protesters in order to kill them, without trial. So the motivation is low. When Europe banned flights over Belarus, marches of the protest movement formed again in Minsk. If there were harsh economic sanctions, that would cut off the means for repression. On the other hand, it will show the Belarusians that they are not alone. If Belarusians take to the streets again, I cannot imagine that Putin would send troops to shoot Belarusians.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has recently confirmed that the EU does not recognize Lukashenko as a legitimate president. In addition, it has promised a 3 billion euro package for a democratic follow-up government. What is the purpose of this?
This is a project for the future. But the gesture shows something very important: Lukashenko kneels in front of Putin and begs to save his regime. He sells his independence bit by bit in order to get financial help. In contrast, the European Union shows what real partnership is. In this, people and their rights are most important. We do not have to kneel in begging for help because the EU regards the future Belarus as an equal partner. And we see Europe the same way.
In its history, international sanctions have never forced regime change. Look to North Korea or Iran. Don’t they need more leverage than that of the EU and the US combined?
It is very important that Europe, the US, UK and Canada coordinate their moves. We hope that these four forces will pull together on sanctions. We Belarusians are a European people with European history and traditions. People liked to visit European countries and it is our wish to live in a free state. Our will is much stronger than that of the citizens of North Korea. In addition, following sanctions, the Iranian leadership entered into a deal with the United States. Lukashenko has also released political prisoners under pressure from sanctions. That is why I sometimes have the impression that some European politicians want to use such arguments to justify their inaction.
Do you have any news about Roman Protassevich?
Roman is a symbol of our protest. Thousands of people are sitting next to him in Belarusian prisons. This week four people were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for collecting votes for an opposition candidate before the elections. Roman is in a KGB detention center and we suspect he is being tortured. Another political prisoner, Stepan Latypov, attempted suicide at a court session yesterday. He cut his throat. A young man committed suicide a few days ago. He jumped from the 16th floor of his apartment building and left a note accusing the Belarusian militia. Every day we read Belarusian news and it’s like news from a war. Unfortunately, it was only the fate of Roman Protassevich that provoked a reaction from the West.
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