The summer ends with no smell of roses

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The last weeks of summer are usually slow. This year they have been as eventful as the year itself. The state governments and the EU could barely react to the extremely dynamic internal and external developments going on in the world.

It is not just that all member states have been digging deeper into dealing with the COVID‑19 pandemic and the impact of that crisis. With varying levels of success, the governments have managed to put it under some control. The EU offered assistance, but so far it has failed to provide intellectual guidance and political leadership as each state has been improvising its own management of the crisis. One should expect that the situation will deteriorate at least in some EU countries when the vacation period ends and the regular flu season starts.

It is concerning that the EU still does not have a unified response strategy for tackling the pandemic. Introducing a unified approach to testing, instant electronic certification and the communication of test-results, introducing zero-knowledge proof while enhancing public health monitoring, providing guidance to the merits of traveling and other restrictions is one thing the EU could have taken the lead on. Making recommendations and enforcing the privacy rights of individuals in the context of the pandemic is another.

The EU still should do all this in order to curb the current health crisis, which will continue into the next year, and take the leading role to develop a comprehensive EU-wide cross-border system for managing new pandemics.

In the meantime, the situation in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, Belarus, and Lebanon has become very tense. In each of these areas of foreign policy, the European Union is being called upon to not only to take a stance but engage in meaningful action.

In Belarus, people are turning out in their hundreds of thousands against an election rigged by the incumbent president, Alexander Lukashenko. The EU needs to put pressure on him and help Belarus find a way out of the crisis. This EU should strive to find some balance through peaceful national dialogue and some transition process, as well as an OSCE mediation mission. There are early indications that managing this will be extremely challenging for Brussels, as Lukashenko refuses to even speak with any European leaders while posing in front of cameras with a Kalashnikov and building, in the capital Minsk, a massive concentration of heavily-armed paramilitary police units and mechanized regular army troops.

Lukashenko’s regime would have fallen long ago if not for Russia, whose national strategy is to move its frontier as far west as possible. Belarus’ exports largely consist of potash and petroleum products refined from discounted Russian oil. Historically, the Baltic republics, Belarus, and Ukraine provided depth from which Russia could protect itself and create additional economic opportunities. The West absorbed the Baltics into NATO and there was little the Russians could do about that at the time. The key country for Russia since then has been Ukraine. Russia effectively lost Ukraine in 2014 and Moscow has put up a fierce lawless fight ever since by occupying Crimea and a part of Eastern Ukraine.

And now comes the problem of Belarus. Russian military intervention in Belarus at this stage would be counter-productive. Shoring up an unpopular Belarusian leader would come at the risk of alienating the Belarusian people, who are otherwise friendly to Russia and not explicitly pro-Western. The Kremlin’s ultimate goal is deeper integration with Belarus that would eventually lead to a fully-fledged union state.

Belarusians wave the opposition flag and take part in a demonstration against the results of the country’s presidential elections. EPA-EFE//STRINGER

As the Belarusian protests against rigged elections evolve, at least some protesters are also calling for Western-style democracy and transparency. A union between Russia and Belarus can never be democratic or liberal with the current leadership in Russia. This is an inherent contradiction within the protest movement, which the Russians ultimately must view as a threat.

Moscow should be expected to put up a fight for Belarus. Vladimir Putin must be able to recognize that Lukashenko is no longer fit to remain in power, but he will find that replacing him will probably mean undermining the relationship between the two regimes, but the Kremlin will be determined to keep Belarus within what it sees as Russia’s sphere of influence. Another reason is that the Ukrainian and Belarusian borders go through Russia’s agricultural heartland, as well as through large population centers and transportation networks.

As a result, Russia will not let Belarus drift to the West, nor will it let Belarus become fully liberal. Russia may allow some changes to occur, while still keeping a tight grip on the situation in Belarus. That would be a fairly positive outcome. More likely, however, is that Russia will use its political and economic leverage to allow for a change at the top of Belarus’ leadership which allows for the preservation of the status quo. If that does not work, Moscow will not shy away from a more aggressive approach, including a military intervention option. Anyone managing the Belarus file has to anticipate that Russia will engage in Belarus with at least the same level of intensity as they have in Ukraine.

At that same time, the EU will also need to handle new challenges coming from Russia itself. Putin appears to be severely rattled by the events in Belarus and after watching how tens of thousands in Russia’s Far East city of Khabarovsk marched in protest against the imposition of Moscow’s rules. This is the only explanation why Alexei Navalny, Putin’s greatest critic and the Russian democrats’ leader is lying in the Charité, one of Europe’s largest university hospitals in Berlin, after being poisoned with Novichok, the same nerve agent used in the assassination attempt against the Skripals in the UK two and a half years ago.

Unlike when it comes to Lukashenko, who is openly called “Europe’s last dictator”, it is hard for Western diplomats to publicly recognize that Putin’s regime rules by fear. Lukashenko’s version of the old Soviet system is destined to fall for its economic and ideological bankruptcy. To preserve his regime, Putin built a type of mafia capitalism that projects an image of strength through a tamed and pliant media and an all-powerful security apparatus. How long this type of regime will survive is anyone’s guess as Putin may cling to power for years. This year he extended his rule by changing the Russian constitution to allow himself to stay until 2036.

Navalny, just before being poisoned while in Siberia, had been organizing opposition votes for regional elections that are scheduled to be held on September 13. It appears that Putin felt compelled to remove him because if Russia’s popular opposition movement, like what has been seen in Belarus or Khabarovsk, begins to pick up more widespread support throughout Russia, Navalny would most likely become its leader.

The poisoning of Navalny is further proof that when Putin’s regime is threatened, he turns to extreme, violent. and lawless actions. Putin has been silencing, arresting, intimidating and assassinating his regime’s political rivals for years. He probably understands that blunt force used against masses of people could fuel further protests. He knows that popular protests, like the ones in Ukraine in 2013-14, and in Belarus and Khabarovsk now, are more difficult to control.

What should the EU do about all this?

In its opening salvo, Europe has, very correctly, started its engagement with these events by restating the value of human rights for the people of Belarus and Russia. Western doctors should explain as soon as possible and without any diplomatic talk why Navalny fell sick. Russia must feel real pressure to help shed light on the Navalny situation and assist with a proper investigation into his poisoning.

The EU must continue to refuse to recognize the results of the rigged election in Belarus. Both the EU and NATO should be prepared that Russia can use force there. The European Union, as well as the member states. need to consider severe sanctions against the Belarusian leadership and Russia because neither Putin nor Lukashenko will be restrained by moral declarations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a statement on the condition of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny at the Chancellery in Berlin on September 2, 2020. The German government said it has ‘unequivocal proof’ that Navalny was poisoned with Novichok. EPA-EFE//HAYOUNG JEON

A significant portion of the current Western sanctions against Russia was introduced prior to the Ukraine crisis of 2014. The first sanctions appeared in 2005 when Russia became involved in an active global confrontation with the West and human rights violations. Since then, additional packages have been imposed for Russia’s intermingling with Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. Since 2014, Moscow has been trying to weaken, or fully abandon, these sanctions due to the fact that they are having an impact, even though Russia is still undermining the world’s stability.

If Russia’s military gets involved in Belarus, and in light of Navalny’s poisoning, there will be a need to strengthen and expand Europe’s sanctions against Russia. They should be optimized and prioritized, with the most efficient packages preserved and additions conditioned on Russia taking certain peaceful steps toward political solutions and the introduction of human rights.

Of all the sanctions imposed against Russia, the most viable are those that prohibit Russian companies from having access to vital Western technologies and financial systems. They, however, often don’t cover the whole targeted sector and, consequently, their impact is weaker than needed. These gaps need to be closed.

The European Union must, together with the UK, do much more to tackle Russian billions of euros of dirty money that is laundered through investments that are managed in the EU and by British financial institutions. Restrictions on investment visas have already been in place since 2015, but more could be done against anonymous companies and dubious investments.

As inspiring as it is to watch from Brussels and other European capitals how Eastern Europeans take to the streets to demand their freedom, the European Union will need to put its money where its mouth is to send strong signals to the dictators that the people are defying.

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