Following the presidential election on 9 August 2020, Belarus saw the largest demonstrations in its history. Tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens gathered peacefully to protest against the falsification of the election results and demand the departure of Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994. Like its European partners, France did not recognize the legitimacy of the vote and supported the democratic movements.
In response to this civic movement, the Belarusian authorities violently repressed all components of civil society (the opposition, the media and NGOs). The main opposition figures are today all in either prison or exile. All independent media and NGOs deemed dissident have been dissolved, and the regime had no qualms about diverting a commercial Ryanair flight on 23 May 2021 in order to arrest journalist Roman Protassevich for criticizing the authorities.
Alexander Lukashenko then provoked a migration crisis with the European Union in autumn 2021. The Belarusian authorities transferred thousands of candidates for illegal immigration to the country’s borders with its EU neighbours, particularly Poland and Lithuania. In early 2022, Minsk also fuelled tensions between Russia and Ukraine by organizing joint military exercises at the Ukrainian border.
Like the European Union, France does not recognize Alexander Lukashenko’s legitimacy and supports the democratic movements.
The European Union has adopted several packages of sanctions against individuals and entities involved in falsifying the August 2020 election, political repression, transfer of migrants to EU borders in autumn 2021, and other destabilizing actions by Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the European Union’s Member States have adopted 5 sanction packages: travel bans and asset freezes have been imposed on 183 individuals and 26 entities.
Sectoral sanctions were also introduced following the diversion of the Athens-Vilnius Ryanair flight on 23 May 2021 and the arrest of journalist Roman Protassevich.
Moreover, the EU has provided support to the Belarusian population and drawn up an economic support programme of €3 billion to accompany a possible democratic transition of the country.
In 2020 and 2021, France was one of the countries that activated the Moscow Mechanism and Vienna Mechanism at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in order to investigate human rights violations committed before and after the 9 August 2020 elections. It has also supported strengthening the remit of the High Commissioner responsible for investigating these violations at the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Resources dedicated to supporting Belarusian civil society have been increased. France’s action has focused on supporting Belarusian students, who were particularly active during the post-electoral demonstrations, through a scholarship programme and by supporting exiled students in Warsaw and Vilnius. Several representatives of the democratic opposition have been invited to Paris to meet our authorities, starting with Pavel Latushko in April and December 2021 and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in September 2021 and February 2022.
More than a year and a half after the beginning of the protest movement, Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has made no concessions. At institutional level, the prospects for inclusive dialogue and a genuine constitutional reform have dwindled as Alexander Lukashenko has worked to consolidate his power. That has led to a worsening of the repression of all components of civil society. There are now more than 1,000 political prisoners. Since August 2020, between 100,000 and 200,000 people have left Belarus and the country has seen a record number of arrests (more than 35,000).
The hardening of the Belarusian regime has come with closer relations between Minsk and Moscow under the Treaty on the establishment of the Union State signed between the two countries in 1999, which ultimately provides for the creation of a confederation. The most important Belarusian concessions have been in the military field.
In parallel, relations with Western countries worsened swiftly after the controversial vote on 9 August 2020.
The relationship with the EU was particularly affected by the diversion on 23 May 2021 of a Ryanair flight and the triggering by Minsk of a migration crisis at the borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in autumn 2021.
Four European ambassadors and the head of the EU delegation have been forced to leave Belarus by the authorities.
On 17 October 2021, the Ambassador of France was forced by the Belarusian authorities to leave the country following France’s refusal to present his credentials to Alexander Lukashenko.