Monetary wars in Belarus. What Lukashenka started
Monetary wars in Belarus resemble a complex multidimensional chess game with several moving parts
In addition to harsh suppression of activists and independent journalists , the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko is now also seeking to seize their money.
Since the beginning of this year, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian law enforcement agencies have conducted 107 searches in the homes or offices of journalists. Since 8 July alone, 63 searches have been carried out, and 33 journalists are still in custody.
And this week, at least three public organizations (the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Imena charitable foundation and the Belarusian PEN Center) have their bank accounts frozen .
The crackdown on NGOs and media outlets and the freezing of their accounts came a few weeks after Lukashenko issued a decree giving the National Bank of Belarus broad powers over foreign exchange. According to the July 9 decree, the National Bank has the right to prohibit the sale and purchase of foreign currency, confiscate euros and US dollars and unilaterally convert them into Belarusian rubles, and restrict the right of Belarusian residents to open and maintain accounts in foreign banks.
The powers will take effect in the event of a “ threat to national security”, if foreign exchange reserves “ fall below the permissible level,” or in the event of “ sharp fluctuations” in the exchange rate of the Belarusian ruble. The resolution expanding Lukashenko’s decree, issued in April 2021, does not contain specific provisions on these conditions, giving the authorities broad powers to impose currency restrictions at their own discretion.
The new currency rules came about when Western sanctions effectively cut Belarus off from Western capital markets and other key sources of foreign exchange earnings. But they also provide for political weapons that can be used against opposition, civil society organizations and journalists.
Lukashenko’s tactics towards independent media and public organizations, which combine draconian repression with attempts to neutralize and bankrupt them, seem to reflect and imitate the tactics of the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia. In addition to freezing the bank accounts of opposition groups such as Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund, Kremlin henchmen also filed frivolous lawsuits, and courts charged questionable bills for services allegedly provided by restaurants and other businesses.
While Lukashenko stepped up his efforts to neutralize the opposition in Belarus, opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was in Washington to do everything possible so that the US and the European Union would effectively bankrupt Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime .
Tikhanovskaya met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, USAID Administrator Samantha Power, members of Congress and other officials. She said that on July 19 she gave Blinken a list of companies in the potash, oil, timber and steel sectors of Belarus that the opposition would like to see under sanctions.
Speaking to reporters, Tikhanovskaya said that her proposed measures, including sanctions against the potash producer Belaruskali, would go beyond the existing US and EU sanctions. “I think it’s time for democracies to unite and show their teeth,” she said at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.
Addressing journalists, Tikhanovskaya noted that the strengthening of existing sanctions against Lukashenka ” will be a real blow to him, make him change his behavior and release political prisoners.”
The opposition leader said the obvious, calling on Russia to stop funding Lukashenka. But she also appears to have acknowledged that isolating the Belarusian dictator could bring him closer to Moscow even further, saying the relationship “ is so close at this point that the next step will be to lose independence. We understand that Lukashenka has to pay to support the Kremlin. ”
These arguments are controversial: will Western sanctions lead to the fact that Belarus will be in the arms of Russia, or will they scare Russia away from supporting Lukashenka.
In a column for The Washington Post this week, Daniel Dresner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, quoted a 2019 article in the Democratization Bulletin that concluded that sanctions against Belarus were tightened between 2004-16. Russian control over this country. Lukashenka “ does not want to further surrender the autonomy of Russia, but he also does not want to lose power. Faced with difficult choices, he will appease Putin, not the West, ”wrote Drezner.
This is correct. But there is also evidence that current Western sanctions are having a chilling effect on Russian support for Lukashenka. On June 24, the TASS news agency reported that Russian oil giants Rosneft and Surgutneftegaz had not reserved pipeline volumes for the third quarter of 2021 to transport oil to the state-owned refinery, which is under US sanctions.
Reuters reported in May, citing unnamed sources, that ” Russian oil exporters may suspend supplies to Belarus’s Naftan refinery” due to US sanctions. According to the data presented in the article, “Russian Rosneft and Surgutneftegaz do not plan to supply oil to Naftan in May” because they are ” worried about the possibility of fines if they continue to deal with Belarusian business.”
Monetary wars in Belarus are like a complex multidimensional chess game with several moving parts. Lukashenko is persistently trying to neutralize the opposition and civil society. The opposition is seeking tougher Western sanctions. And Russia is waiting in the wings, constantly expanding its presence on the territory of its small western neighbor.
To solve this difficult task, Western politics must view the sanctions against Belarus and Russia as components of a single whole. As I said earlier, as long as Putin continues to support and finance Belarus, the United States and its allies should impose sanctions on the Putin-Lukashenko autocratic axis as a whole.