(CN) — Belarus is heading toward an escalation of tensions and drama after the European Union and Russia warned each other against interfering in an Eastern European nation witnessing mass protests and strikes amid a revolutionary drive to oust its longtime leader, a man often described as Europe's last dictator.
On Wednesday, the EU stepped more firmly into the fray by vowing to impose sanctions on Belarusian officials considered responsible for brutality against protesters in the wake of an allegedly rigged presidential election on Aug. 9 that gave long-time Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko a landslide victory. Sanctions also are expected to be imposed on election officials who allegedly fixed the election.
The EU also said it rejected the election results in Belarus and that it was providing $63 million originally earmarked for the Belarusian government to civil society groups in Belarus, victims of a post-election crackdown on protests and efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The bloc's moves came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron about the situation in Belarus. Following those discussions, both sides warned against interference even as each side became more involved in seeking influence over the future of Belarus, a country of 9.8 million people that sits between Russia and the EU.
The EU says it supports the mass democratic protests that have broken out against Lukashenko and the bloc is calling for new free and fair elections. Lukashenko's main rival, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled to Lithuania, an EU member state, after the election. From Lithuania, she has been trying to orchestrate Lukashenko's ouster by setting up a transitional government and organizing new elections.
The events in Belarus – where streets are filled with honking cars, masses of people dressed in red and white, the colors of the opposition, workers strike at state-run factories and youths are chanting “freedom!” – are reminding many Europeans of the cataclysmic revolutions that took place in Eastern Europe that brought about the end of communist regimes and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Many experts believe the movement against Lukashenko is unstoppable – not least because the Belarusian president has few friends outside of the security forces in his homeland and the ruling elite. In recent days, German newspapers have talked about the drama in Belarus as the “beginning of the end of the dictatorship.”
“The reality is that the Belarusian president is on the way out,” wrote Judy Dempsey, a political analyst and editor with Carnegie Europe, a think tank. “It’s only a question of time.”
In recent years, Lukashenko's popularity has dwindled as living standards declined. His support eroded further after he said the coronavirus could be treated with vodka and saunas and claimed women were not suited to lead the country during the recent presidential campaign. He was facing three female candidates who'd entered the race to protest the exclusion of men from the election, two of whom were husbands and, in the case of a third female candidate, she was the campaign manager of an arrested businessman running for the presidency.
In addition, Lukashenko has angered Russia, a traditional ally, by refusing to go along with Putin's goals of further integrating Belarus into Russia.
Still, it is far from clear what direction events will take as the EU – along with the United States – and Russia vie to steer Belarus towards an outcome that suits them.
Russia, though, is viewed as holding the stronger hand, not only because Belarus lies firmly within its sphere of influence and serves as a key buffer against Europe and NATO but also because the Kremlin has shown it will use military force to achieve its ends, as it did in Ukraine in 2014.