About a year and a half ago, Alexander Lukashenko was greeted with a traditional round loaf in the central Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr, and the newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, treated his Belarusian counterpart like a close relative.
Mutual compliments ended in the summer of 2020, when Lukashenko rigged the election and once again declared himself president. The Belarusians refused to take this, and took to the streets instead. The peaceful protest was brutally suppressed, the whole civilized world was outraged, and so was Ukraine.
Now the Lukashenko regime organizes a fighter jet to force a foreign plane to land for the arrest of an oppositionist. The whole civilized world is outraged again, the air service with Belarus is cut off, and Ukraine follows suit.
At the same time, Belarusian activists are demanding tougher sanctions, including from Kyiv. Our Pavel Kalashnyk looks at what these sanctions can be, whether Ukraine can afford them and whether the Ukrainian government will actually go for them.
Belarusians demand sanctions, but not just any old
Shock. This word was mostly used to describe the special operation of the Belarusian KGB during which a Ryanair passenger plane was accompanied to the ground by a fighter jet. All this to detain the voice of opposition, co-founder of the NEXTA Telegram channel Raman Pratasevich.
Belarusian oppositionists and human rights activists immediately began demanding harsher sanctions against the Lukashenko regime.
For example, ex-presidential candidate Sviatlana Cichanouskaja called for sanctions, exclusion of Belarus from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and suspension of membership in Interpol.
And in Kyiv, outside the Foreign Ministry building, activists demanded that the Ukrainian government use "real measures of influence, not just diplomatic ones," against Minsk.
However, so far the European Union has only banned flights over Belarus and suspended flights of Belarusian companies to the Commonwealth. The same decision was made by the United Kingdom and Ukraine.
But it turned out that this was not exactly what opponents of the Lukashenko regime wanted. Belarusians have even started writing on social media that the EU and Ukraine have deprived them of one of the possibilities to escape from Belarus.
Police detain students during a protest against the results of the presidential election in Minsk, Belarus, September 1, 2020. Photo: AP
And what exactly do they want?
Volodymyr Yavorskyi is a Ukrainian human rights activist who worked in Belarus and was forced to leave. We asked him what kind of reaction Belarusians expect from Lukashenko's opponents.
According to him, first of all, the Ukrainian authorities are required to create conditions for those fleeing Belarus.
"For example, to allow entry in the case of persecution without a PCR test or without any documents. Sometimes a Belarusian may have a few hours to pack and leave, and Ukrainians would not let him in," he said.
Secondly, to extend the period of stay in Ukraine for Belarusians who have already left. Although it was extended to 180 days, the protests have been going on since August, and the deadlines are drawing nearer.
Also among the demands is to stop broadcasting the state TV channel "Belarus 24" on the territory of Ukraine, because it "spreads propaganda and fakes about Belarus in Ukraine."
And while so far the demands have been realistic, the last requirement is much more complicated - sectoral sanctions.
"Ukraine can finally cut off electricity supplies from Belarus. There are many things that we buy, such as the diesel. We have had the problem of dependence on Belarusian diesel for many years, but no one is solving it," says Yavorskyi.
So far, according to the activist, the Ukrainian authorities have opposed Lukashenko mostly in words.
What sanctions are already in place and who will suffer from the new ones
Following rigged elections and violence against protesters, the European Union managed to impose three packages of sanctions on Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko himself, as well as some companies.
Although delayed, Ukraine joined in condemning the Lukashenko regime and refused to recognize him as the legitimate president. Official contacts between Kyiv and Minsk have ceased. Ukraine has also joined some of the EU sanctions.
However, so far neither the EU nor Ukraine has put large-scale economic sanctions on Belarus on the agenda.
Hypothetical trade restrictions will hit Minsk harder, because Ukraine buys more from Belarus than the other way round. According to the State Statistics Service, in the first quarter of 2021, Ukraine exported $306 million worth of goods to Belarus and imported $863.7 million.
But most of the restrictions work in both directions. As an example, we can consider the already introduced ban on flights to Belarus.
The search of Ryanair aircraft taken by Raman Pratasevich at Minsk airport on May 23, 2021. Photo: Onliner.by
"Exhausting" ban for Ukrainian airlines...
In a column for hromadske, aviation law expert Andriy Huk notes that this ban will be "economically exhausting" for Ukrainian airlines. Russian airspace and the occupied territories are already inaccessible to them.
Avianews highlights the same factors. It notes that the Ukrainian market is the largest for the Belarusian airline Belavia, so its losses will be significant. But in order to work in Ukraine, the company pays fees to Ukrainian airports - which they will now cease to get.
According to UkrAeroRukh (Air Traffic Management state enterprise), in 2020 the Belarusian airline accounted for 7.5% of all traffic in Ukraine, which represents how much revenue will be foregone.
Besides, airlines will now have to fly to the Scandinavian or Baltic countries "bypassing" Belarus. As a result, the fuel costs will increase and they will be forced to either increase the price of tickets or cancel flights altogether.
Although UIA, for example, has already stated that there are no plans to increase the cost of tickets or cancel flights because of the situation. But at the same time it will "observe the dynamics and volume of sales."
In any case, Ukraine could not have acted differently, says Viktor Konstantynov, associate professor at the Institute of International Relations at Shevchenko Kyiv National University.
"This is a much-needed reaction, because we must be with the West. We are part of a democratic community and if we ignore such things, we will have purely pragmatic problems when we need the support of the West," he said in a comment to hromadske.
... which will not change anything for Belarusians
At the same time, the abolition of air travel will not fundamentally change the situation for Belarusians who want to flee the country, says human rights activist Yavorskyi.
"It was quite difficult to get away by plane previously, because the borders were closed, everyone was carefully checked at the airport, and in many cases people were taken off the planes and refused exit," he said in a comment to hromadske.
If a person is not on the "black" list, they will be able to leave the country now - through Turkey, Russia or other non-EU countries. There are still opportunities to leave by land, notes Yavorskyi.
"For example, you can go to Ukraine if you have a sanatorium voucher. You can buy those for $20-30 at the cheapest sanatorium and leave. There is also a bus service between Ukraine and Belarus. This decision does not create critical problems," he is convinced.
Moreover, Yavorskyi is certain that such a decision was made by EU countries primarily to protect their own citizens, and not to punish Lukashenko.
"The punishment is rather nominal. Of course, Belavia can go bankrupt and be bought, for example, by Russia's Aeroflot. Belarus will lose in this issue, but for the regime it will not be such a loss that will make it tumble," he said.
Protesters lift paper planes demanding the release of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich during a demonstration in front of the European Commission's office in Warsaw, Poland, on May 24, 2021. Photo: AP / Czarek Sokolowski
Will Ukraine resort to sectoral sanctions?
No matter how unpleasant the losses from the air service ban, it is nothing on the introduction of sectoral economic sanctions, which will hit Ukraine hard.
"I believe that it is inexpedient for Ukraine at this stage to impose or join economic sanctions against Belarus," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in 2020.
However, as Konstantynov notes, if guided only by the categories of "profitable / unprofitable", the European Union did not have to impose sanctions against Russia, because for the bloc economic cooperation with Moscow was very lucrative.
"It's a political issue, we have to decide how much we are willing to pay. We call on Europeans to pay for us, but how much are we willing to pay for Europeans?” the expert wonders.
He himself is convinced that inside the country, economic losses for the sake of Belarus are unlikely to be appreciated.
"No matter how much we talk about freedom and democracy, these values as a defining tool in Ukraine have not yet taken root. We simply won't understand if we have to suffer and close businesses because some journalist was imprisoned," Konstantynov explains.
That is, the logic of the Ukrainian government is quite clear here - which, unlike Lukashenko, was elected in a democratic election. Harsh restrictions are demanded by very few, but if they are introduced and economic problems come up as a result (for example, diesel becomes more expensive), the lion's share of voters will notice the negative effect on them, not the blow to Lukashenko. And why do those in power need this? Besides, a third of Ukrainians are actually fond of Lukashenko, according to recent polls.
Dependencies: external and internal
However, this does not mean that the government has no questions to answer, and the poor thing found itself between a rock and hard place. Despite seven years of war, Ukraine is economically dependent on the aggressor and its closest ally. In some areas, this is very pronounced.
The already mentioned difference of half a billion dollars between exports and imports from Belarus is formed due to the supply of oil products, which in the first quarter were imported from Belarus to Ukraine for $511 million.
And here we should mention another principle of economics - interdependence. Belarus needs to sell its products somewhere, but Ukraine also needs to buy them somewhere.
Previously, delays in diesel fuel supplies from Russia and Belarus created a deficit in Ukraine. The share of these countries in our market is 35.4% and 30% respectively. That is two-thirds.
In the case of electricity, imports from Belarus and Russia are far from large. But this option, for example, helped avoid fan outages in the winter, when there was a large shortage of coal in Ukraine and nuclear power plants took long with repairs.
Catholic and Orthodox priests bless the start of construction work on Belarus' first nuclear power plant near Ostrovets, 180 km northwest of Minsk, Belarus on February 1, 2013. Photo: AP / Sergei Grits
And to this extent, there are several other problems.
First, electricity imports from Belarus and Russia are holding back prices in Ukraine and preventing Rinat Akhmetov's DTEK monopoly from working in full swing.
Former prime ministers and current MPs frequent his TV channels and are happy to tell you why Ukraine should not be buying electricity from the aggressor and Lukashenko. However, for some reason, other types of products from the Russian Federation, such as some brands of coal for Akhmetov's thermal plants, are never mentioned.
Solving another problem will allow us to do away with imports from Russia and Belarus. The fact is that the United Energy System of Ukraine is part of the energy system together with the Russian Federation, Belarus and Moldova. Roughly speaking, there are no physical wires to supply energy from Europe. And it is a question for the authorities: why Ukraine has not yet joined the EU energy system. The Ministry of Energy recently promised to do so in 2023.
However, on May 26, Ukraine did ban the import of electricity from Russia and Belarus until October 1. Although this temporary ban has nothing to do with Pratasevich's detention. Such an initiative was made by the new Minister of Energy Herman Halushchenko before the plane incident.
Moreover, the ban is valid until October. Namely, the heating season starts in October, electricity consumption is growing, so imports from Belarus and Russia may be needed again.
It is precisely these problems that Yavorskyi mentioned to us - that Ukraine has a number of dependencies on the aggressor country and its actual satellite, but is not in a hurry to get rid of these dependencies.
So far, Ukraine has quite limited opportunities to show solidarity with the democratic world and not face serious economic problems.
However, it should not be forgotten that this democratic world itself is in no hurry to impose serious restrictions on "world hooligans" either.
Outrage usually subsides quickly, and the EU confines itself to imposing sanctions on individuals and legal entities that do not force the offender to change their behavior.
Iran is a shining example of how only large-scale sectoral sanctions can work.
The Islamic Republic's missile and nuclear programs forced the UN Security Council to impose tough sanctions, and the United States and later the EU imposed an embargo on Iranian oil. All this forced Tehran to make concessions and conclude a so-called nuclear agreement.
But as cynical as it may sound, the situation in Belarus, even with the outrageous detention of Pratasevich, can hardly be compared to the possible creation of nuclear weapons by the belligerent clerical regime in Iran.
And until that happens, the situation inside the country is primarily a problem of those who live there.