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Effective sanctions? The case of Belarus

June 18, 2021

Alexander Lukashenko, the autocratic ruler of Belarus, is still in power despite years of sanctions against him and his country. This DW data analysis explains how sanctions work.

A protester in Minsk holding an altered image of autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko
Alexander Lukashenko is considered by many as Europe's 'last dictator'Image: Valery Sharifulin/ITAR-TASS/imago images

Dictators like to win elections. In the past 27 years, Alexander Lukashenko has stood for election six times, and each time he was victorious. Or supposedly victorious, that is, in what has been widely seen as rigged elections. Sanctions against him have been in place for the majority of his rule, and stricter punitive measures are set to come into force in the coming days

However, Christian von Soest from the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) does not anticipate tougher sanctions bringing 66-year-old Lukashenko to his knees just like that. "That attitude overburdens this complicated instrument with expectations that are far too high," he said.

Long history of sanctions targeting Minsk

DW's analysis of the Belarusian case demonstrates what a difficult instrument sanctions are. In 1994, when Lukashenko was first elected, the tentative opening of the former Soviet republic came to an end. Belarus began to turn into an autocracy.

Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya says 'harsh' sanctions needed # 13.06.2021

Political opponents vanished without trace; the media and civil society were harassed; civic protest was suppressed. The United States and the European Union, the world's most active sanctioners, responded by imposing restrictive measures on the Lukashenko regime. They have been in place almost continuously since the early 2000s.

In 2004 the United States passed the Belarus Democracy Act, a federal law that is still in effect today. It allows for the promotion of civil society and the punishment of the ruling elite. In 2006, incumbent US President George W. Bush issued an executive order that froze all US-held assets and accounts belonging to Lukashenko and his close associates. That same year, after also freezing European accounts and assets, the EU imposed an entry ban on Lukashenko and some of his allies. An arms embargo was then applied in 2011.

DW data visualization: The history of Belarus' tumbling democracy

Diplomatic thaw amid Crimea annexation

However, in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and supported separatists in the east of the country, the European Union reengaged with Lukashenko in its own security interests. The Belarusian capital, Minsk, became an important center of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis. In 2016, the EU lifted its sanctions on Belarus: Only the arms embargo remained in force.

This period of detente came to an end in August 2020 with what the opposition has called a rigged presidential election and the violent suppression of peaceful mass protests. In three stages, the European Union once again imposed entry bans and froze accounts and foreign assets. A total of 88 individuals and seven companies are currently on the blacklist. Dozens more will be added soon.

Pratasevich arrest provokes further sanctions

Lukashenko has not been allowed to enter the EU since November 6, 2020. Yet, on May 23 of this year his regime forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk so it could arrest the exiled Belarusian journalist and blogger Raman Pratasevich, who was on board. Since then, European airspace has been closed to aircraft from Belarus — a measure affecting all Belarusian people.

Further economic sanctions against important Belarusian industries, such as fertilizer production, may be imposed by the end of June. The United States has also announced much tougher punitive measures. 

However, every strengthening of the sanctions is "a very double-edged sword," according to sanctions researcher von Soest. "If more economic sanctions are implemented, it will also affect the population," he said.

Failed sanctions: Iraqi populace devastated

This is exactly what happened in Iraq in the 1990s when the UN Security Council imposed an economic embargo. The dictator Saddam Hussein clung on to power until 2003, while in the meantime millions of Iraqis suffered from poverty, hunger and epidemics such as typhoid and cholera.

As a result, the international community acknowledged that sanctions should only affect decision-makers or specific sectors of a country's economy. 

Today, the most usual targeted sanctions include entry bans and the freezing of accounts and assets abroad, as in the case of the Lukashenko regime. Comprehensive, less targeted economic and financial sanctions affecting entire economies, such as exclusion from the SWIFT international payments system, are the exception. A SWIFT exclusion for Belarus is also being discussed.

Exiled Belarusian dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich after his arrest
Pratasevich became a political prisoner when his Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in MinskImage: Ramil Nasibulin/BelTA/AP

Not all sanctions are alike

A DW data analysis of sanctions worldwide since 1995 shows that 36% of the travel bans were successful, meaning that in one-third of the cases the sanctioned state made some concessions to the sanctioner. 

Over the same period, financial sanctions, targeted and untargeted, were successful in 41% of cases.

Broader-based sanctions had even more success. This was especially true of the cancellation or suspension of military cooperation (46%).

The highest success rate — 55% — was achieved with sanctions that are relatively seldom imposed, such as flight bans, the closure of sea ports, the breaking off of diplomatic relations, or exclusion from international organizations. These are included in the graph under "Other."

Data visualization: The success rate of different sanction types - English - ONLY USE WITH DATA STORY

These chances of success are calculated on the basis of a DW analysis of the Global Sanctions Database. The database is a joint project of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the Konstanz University of Applied Sciences, and Drexel University in Philadelphia. The research team documents more than 1,100 sanctions and looks at their outcome, based on media reports.

Sanctions on apartheid regime exemplary

A concrete change in behavior, such as the release of prisoners, a cease-fire or the opening of negotiations, is a clear indicator of success. The sanctions against the former apartheid regime in South Africa are regarded as an outstanding example.

However, Clara Portela from the European Union Institute for Security Studies emphasizes that: "The idea that you impose sanctions on a target in order to bring about a change in behavior is not always true. And the idea that sanctions actually bring about this change in behavior is also not true."

A pro-democracy protester confronting Lukashenko's security forces in Belarus in September 2020
After protests last summer, Lukashenko's regime brought quiet to the country with an iron fistImage: Reuters

In the case of Belarus, for example, Europeans and Americans are not openly calling for regime change. But isn't that precisely what Western allies are seeking to achieve? "Before evaluating whether sanctions work or not work, the first thing that needs to be clarified is: What are they expected to do? What are the goals of the sanctions? And here the information that we get from senders is minimal, if not absent," said Portela.

For Christian von Soest of the GIGA Institute, it cannot be disputed "that sanctions send out an important signal about international norms." In the specific case of Belarus, they stigmatize Lukashenko as a wrongdoer, and function as a warning to other autocrats. They also send a signal of support to the suppressed opposition. And they reaffirm international norms such as the protection of human rights. "In reality, international norms are not upheld by anything other than the dedication of states," said Portela.

Katrin Kamin of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy also stresses that it is "difficult to completely assess and observe" the effects of sanctions — and that they are correspondingly hard to measure. "The question, though, is: what would be the alternatives to sanctions, and how effective would they be? With that in mind, 'success rates' of over 30% do seem pretty effective," she said.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko holding a Kalashnikov-type rifle in a video still released by state television
The EU is now considering implementing sanctions against entire sectors of the Belarusian economy to put more pressure on Lukashenko's regimeImage: State TV and Radio Company of Belarus via AP/picture alliance

Sanctions can prove effective against autocracies

In the case of Belarus, releasing political prisoners would be an important first step. Using the Global Sanctions Database, DW carried out an analysis to see which forms of government have been more resistant to sanctions over the past 70 years.

It showed that sanctions against moderate autocracies were indeed effective. According to the data, one in two of these sanctions were successful, and only 16% failed. The University of Würzburg's democracy matrix considers countries like Russia or Turkey to be moderate autocracies, while Belarus is on its way to becoming a hard autocracy.

With hard autocracies, the risk of failure rose to 29%, while the success rate — a global average of 40% for other forms of government — fell to 26%. "We can see this effect in Iran and North Korea, for example," said Kamin. "Pressure does not always result in democratization."

Data visualization: The success rate of sanctions against hard autocracies - English - ONLY USE WITH DATA STORY

Blockade must show unity to work

All the sanctions experts interviewed emphasize that unity is a crucial factor for success. The more big nations or confederations of states support the restrictive measures, the harder it is for the sanctioned countries to mitigate the consequences of the reduction in their room to maneuver. However, if even one country breaks the blockade, it is enough to ease the pressure created by sanctions.

Alexander Lukashenko has a strong ally and backer in Russia. "The Russian president is perhaps the only person guaranteeing his personal security," said Olga Dryndova of the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. She comments that, in order to save his regime, Lukashenko has put himself in a position of "total dependence."

Consequently, it will probably not be European and American sanctions that decide Lukashenko's fate, but the political calculation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Vladimir Putin (right) and Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi on May 29, 2021
Putin (right) met with Lukashenko in Sochi on May 29, just a few days after the forced landing of the Ryanair planeImage: Sergei Ilyin/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/AP/picture alliance