Garneau predicts sanctions will weaken and isolate Belarusian strongman Lukashenko

Canada’s foreign affairs minister says he’s confident a new round of economic sanctions will further isolate Belarus — even as neighbouring Russia dismisses international outrage over the forced landing of an international flight carrying a prominent dissident.

Marc Garneau told CBC’s The House in an interview airing Saturday that the increased sanctions are part of a graduated response intended to force Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to release activist Roman Protasevich.

“I think they will get the message across in terms of Belarus being left with only one ally and that is Russia,” he said

Garneau wouldn’t go into specifics but he said Canada and other countries are looking at further measures to make it clear that the forced landing of the Ryanair flight last Sunday for the sole purpose of silencing one of Lukashenko’s critics will not be tolerated.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau: ‘There’s no indication that Putin has any intention of doing anything other than defending Belarus.’ (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“We think that if we continue to put multilateral pressure on Belarus and some things still remain to be done, then we think that we will have the effect that needs to happen so that Roman Protasevich can be released,” he said.

The European Union accused Lukashenko of kidnapping and “state piracy” after his officials fabricated a bomb threat to justify sending a fighter jet to force the commercial airplane to divert to the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

EU foreign ministers said Friday they will look at hitting Belarus’s big potash exports and its oil and financial sectors with new sanctions.

Belarus has resisted international pressure before with the help of Russia. Canada and other nations first imposed sanctions last year in response to evidence of widespread vote-rigging in the election that returned Lukashenko to power and his subsequent crackdown on protests.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Lukashenko to the resort city of Sochi, where on Friday the two took turns criticizing the “outpouring of emotion” over the forced landing of the plane.

Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, detained when a Ryanair plane was forced to land in Minsk, is seen in a pre-trial detention facility on May 24, 2021, in this still image taken from video. (Telegram@Zheltyeslivy/Reuters TV/Reuters)

The posturing only adds to fears for the safety of the 26-year-old Protasevich, who was pulled off the plane and arrested along with his Russian girlfriend.

“He’s one of the leading journalists who is covering the protests back in 2020 when there was no Internet and no other independent media,” said Alena Liavonchanka, chair of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance, told The House.

“So there was a lot of sensitive information in this channel. And Roman actually has access to people who leaked information from within the system. He knows other coordinators who were posting this information. And all he knows is really precious to special services and personally to Lukashenko.”

Liavonchanka said she’s not confident Lukashenko can be forced to release any of his political opponents — not unless Moscow presses him to do so. She still urged Canada and other western nations to keep up the pressure.

CBC News: The House19:28Holding Belarus to account

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau discusses Canada’s measures against Belarus following this week’s events, and Eastern European politics expert Alexander Lanoszka and chair of the Belarusian Canadian Alliance Alena Liavonchanka examine whether they go far enough. 19:28

Hitting Lukashenko where it hurts

Alexander Lanoszka, a professor of international relations at the University of Waterloo, said he believes ramping up the economic pressure can work.

“There is a sense that these sanctions are not as large as they could be,” he said.

“And so many observers have argued that if you want to really hit the Belarusian regime hard, you need to target such industries like petrochemicals, wood products, potash and so forth, industries that give hard currency to Lukashenko’s regime.”

Lanoszka added that while Russia is Belarus’s closest ally in Eastern Europe, where many countries are now NATO members, Putin’s influence over Lukashenko risks being overstated — even though the sanctions imposed after last August’s election left Lukashenko with nowhere else to turn.

“And as much as I think there are some disagreements or even some dislike, at least from Putin’s perspective, towards Lukashenko, Lukashenko has to more or less accept some of the terms that Russia will offer it in order to offset some of the sanctions and some of the opprobrium that has been levelled at the Belarusian regime,” he said.

Garneau said he has no illusions about the role Putin will play after Friday’s meeting in Sochi.

“At this point, there’s no indication that Putin has any intention of doing anything other than defending Belarus. But as we know, the Russian president is known for taking contrary positions. And so this is not surprising,” he said.

“We think that if we continue to put multilateral pressure on Belarus and some things still remain to be done, then we think that we will have the effect that needs to happen so that Roman Protasevich can be released.”

Liavonchanka said she’s confident change is coming to her home country — that the public opposition to Lukashenko can’t be crushed despite this week’s arrests, the ban on media reports about anti-regime protests and the increasingly violent response of police.

“I think the Belarusian nation changed very much since last year. We matured and people are fully aware of what that means, to fight for your freedom, and how precious freedom and democracy are.”