The end of Europe’s last dictatorship?

Massive protests in Belarus’ capital Minsk are making the headlines worldwide. Demonstrators accuse the Belarus government of having massively rigged the election result of 9 August, while the regime has been heavily cracking down on the protests and journalists: thousands of people were arrested, allegedly tortured, hundreds were injured and two people have died. Notwithstanding this violence, for the first time in President Lukashenko’s 26 year-old-regime is seriously challenged and demonstrators’ asks are receiving more and more attention from the international community.

EU countries have just announced that they will – once again, after the last lift in 2016 – toughen sanctions against members of the regime in retaliation of human right abuses and electoral fraud. While it’s unclear whether Lukashenko will be listed in the EU blacklists, other members of the regime will likely face visa bans and asset freezes. The EU, along with the USA, have a long history of sanctioning both government members and businesspeople near the Lukashenko regime and imposing economic sanctions on the country. However, the effectiveness of these sanctions to obtain democratic reform has been often questioned. Unlike the US, the EU has yet to impose any sanctions for corruption (misappropriation) on Belarus.

But just how corrupt is Lukashenko’s regime?

The “last dictator of Europe”, as he is often referred to, won his first elections on a promise to curb corruption back in the mid-90s and has been praised for some steps towards reforming anti-corruption over the past decade. International corruption indexes give Belarus a relatively good score and some analysts have argued that the country did not become a kleptocracy as much as other neighbouring countries. Others indicate that grand corruption is a big issue, just less visible than elsewhere: the fact that so much power is in the hands of one person and that most of resources are still state-owned likely play a big role in this.

A comprehensive journalistic investigation of 2015 estimates that up to USD 10 billion were illegally misappropriated during the Lukashenko regime.

The investigation identifies a number of key businesspeople linked to the government, including Vladimir Peftiev, who specialised in exporting soviet ammunition, communications and had business links with two of Lukashenko’s sons. As for many other examples, allegedly Lukashenko has built his regime through a firm control over who was to make money out of the state budget through close obedience to him and his family. And also, as in many other kleptocracies worldwide, the widespread use of offshore companies has allowed people under sanctions to avoid asset freezes and easily accessing their assets, as also happened with Mr. Peftiev.

Recovering Belarus assets

In its anti-corruption efforts, the Lukashenko regime has consistently gone after corrupt officials and executives, among accusations of politically-biased prosecutions. It also made some efforts to recover its stolen assets: according to the UNODC/World Bank, Luxembourg froze USD 2.4 million from Belarus as of 2011, and there has been ongoing support from the EU for Belarus to strengthen its anti-corruption and asset recovery framework.

If a regime change in Belarus is on sight, and if following a toppling of the regime will lead to more asset recovery is still very hard to tell. What matters now is that the international community supports Belarus people through strong and consistent actions to hold Lukashenko accountable for its human rights violations and corruption. At the EU level, the situation in Belarus can and should be an opportunity to advance towards a transparent and effective human rights and anti-corruption sanctions regime in the EU, as CiFAR has been advocating for since 2018.