The people of Belarus are in the midst of a national struggle that will determine the country’s future for generations to come. The tens of thousands of protesters filling the streets of Minsk and cities across the country stand for the ideal that each nation in Europe should have the sovereign ability to determine its own path and decide how and by whom it is governed.
After 26 years of election rigging and autocracy, it is clear that Belarusians are tired of President Alexander Lukashenko. He is not legitimate. Such an authoritarian regime in 21st century Europe is unacceptable.
The situation in Belarus marks Britain’s first geo-political crisis in Europe since leaving the European Union. Sadly, beyond the odd tweet from government Twitter accounts and a bland joint statement with the E.U, the United States and Switzerland there has been no meaningful British response. This is unfortunate.
A key argument for Brexit was that the United Kingdom would no longer be encumbered by the Brussels consensus-driven foreign policy making process, resulting in a robust and independent British outlook. At least with the situation in Belarus, this has not been the case. The Foreign Office remains trapped in a pre-Brexit mindset, with the E.U.’s Common Foreign and Security Policy continuing to hold sway, seven months after the U.K. officially freed itself from the shackles of Brussels.
There are striking similarities today to the way the then-Labour government initially responded to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. Both events occurred in the sleepy days of August. Prime minister Gordon Brown and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, were on holiday. Neither showed any immediate concern for the Georgians, standing up to the Kremlin, or bringing an end to the conflict.
It is not too late for robust British leadership and there are several steps the British Government can take immediately when it comes to Belarus.
Firstly, the U.K. must provide moral support to the leaders of the Belarusian opposition. Vilnius, where opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is currently located, is less than a three hour flight from London. Dispatching a cabinet minister to meet with her would send a very strong signal to the protesters. This important act of moral support can be accomplished in one day.
Secondly, the U.K. should implement targeted sanctions. Now outside the E.U., the U.K. can act with more speed and agility to implement stronger sanctions against those in Belarus and Russia enabling the crackdown on the protesters. The new "Magnitsky"-style sanctions regime that recently came into force can be used. At a minimum the U.K. should match the E.U.’s modest and limited sanctions. Ideally the U.K. should use its independent foreign policy making capacity to go further.
Thirdly, the U.K. can convene a meeting of the Northern Group to discuss the situation in Belarus and issue a joint statement. The Northern Group was created in 2010 and consists of the five Nordic countries, the three Baltic States, the U.K., Poland, Germany and the Netherlands. It serves as an important forum to coordinate and cooperate on shared geopolitical concerns. Belarus borders three members of the Northern Group.
Finally, now would be the right moment for good old-fashioned bilateral diplomacy. Both Poland and Lithuania have filled the leadership void when it comes to Europe’s response to the crisis in Belarus. Looking outside the traditional framework of Nato or the Northern Group, London should be consulting with both countries regularly on a bilateral basis. An immediate visit by the British Prime Minister to Warsaw and Vilnius would send an important message to the region. Again, this is something that could be accomplished in a short period of time.
While these steps are modest in scope, taken together they can lay a strong foundation to respond to events in Belarus as they unfold. There is a stark difference between the positions of the West and Russia regarding Belarus. Moscow says that Belarus has no choice but to remain in its sphere of influence. The West isn't pushing for Belarus to join the transatlantic community but merely wants its people to determine their own future. The events unfolding in Belarus are a reminder that we are dealing with an Imperial Russia. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin we face a 21st century Russia with 19th century ambitions.
Some argue that Britain’s influence in European affairs is now minimal outside the E.U. This is nonsense. In 1920, long before the E.U. existed, British troops were in Estonia as part of the Russian civil war helping the Estonians earn their independence. One-hundred years later, after leaving the European Union, British soldiers are in Estonia again to guarantee their independence under the auspices of Nato. For centuries Britain has been a major continental power as well as a global power. And it will remain so for hundreds of years more.
The crisis in Belarus is a test for Global Britain and British leadership on the European and world stage in the Brexit era. The U.K. cannot ignore developments in Belarus and must stand firm with our allies in eastern and central Europe in leading on this issue of sovereignty and self-determination on the borders of Russia.
This piece originally appeared in The Telegraph