The policy of the Netherlands towards Belarus is largely implemented through the EU and NATO, which is why this chapter focuses exclusively on these two organizations. The European Union has only limited leverage due to a pattern of over 25 years of, at best, selective engagement with Belarus. The EU has alternated between isolating Lukashenko and reaching out to him, including by imposing and subsequently lifting sanctions. Brussels has hitherto largely been unsuccessful in achieving any of its strategic objectives: Lukashenko has only resorted to more repression to preserve power, and he has become more dependent on the Russian Federation than ever. The EU has so far avoided entering into a new geopolitical confrontation with the Russian Federation over Belarus, but the longer Lukashenko’s repressive policies continue, and the more Belarus integrates with the Russian Federation, the more difficult this becomes.

NATO has even fewer possibilities than the European Union to influence the situation within Belarus and finds itself in a classic security dilemma. It has to respond to the legitimate security concerns of neighbouring allies such as Poland and Lithuania. But if NATO reinforces its military presence in the vicinity of the Belarusian border, the Russian Federation will reciprocate by building up its own military presence within the framework of the Union State and other bilateral military agreements. Furthermore, increased NATO involvement in the region only plays into Lukashenko’s hand by reinforcing his narrative towards the Kremlin that “Belarus and Russia are both under threat from NATO”. This security dilemma significantly limits the Alliance’s room for manoeuvre.

However, this does not mean that the EU and NATO have no options at all at their disposal, both to nudge the outcome towards a preferred ‘change of course’ scenario or to mitigate the negative geopolitical, economic and security consequences of the other three scenarios. The following steps could be considered in this regard:

The EU should stop compromising on its values for geopolitical purposes by opportunistically lifting sanctions whenever Lukashenko gets into an argument with Russia and makes token concessions in the field of human rights. Instead, the EU should follow a firm course of action where sanctions are only eased if meaningful concessions are made. Despite Western tendencies to ‘personalize’ such crises by over-emphasizing the fate of a few high-profile individuals, the problems of autocratic governance in Belarus are systemic and should be addressed as such; it is not sufficient to release one prominent activist from house arrest while hundreds of political prisoners continue to languish in Belarusian prisons and critical news outlets are silenced.
Consequently, the EU should decisively conclude that there is no quick fix and should instead play the long game by offering Belarus and especially its population a longer-term perspective of economic growth and support for the country’s democratic movement. The more the EU stands by its own values and the more the Kremlin backs up a repressive autocrat, the more the Belarusian population will shift their generally positive view of Russia westwards.
The EU should also carefully consider if and when it would recognize a new leadership even if Lukashenko steps down, as future elections or referenda in Belarus are unlikely to be completely free and democratic. In the meantime the EU should formally preserve Belarus’ membership within the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership, despite Lukashenko’s decision to suspend his country’s participation, in order to keep the option on the table for future Governments to return to a dialogue with the EU.
The EU should scale up measures that mitigate the effects of repression on the Belarusian people, such as granting visas, scholarships and other opportunities for Belarusian activists, students and entrepreneurs who have to temporarily leave the country. Supporting efforts such as documenting human rights abuses and the pursuit of international justice reinforces the EU’s value-driven approach, even if the short-term impact is likely to be limited. The EU should also offer non-state economic actors in Belarus a perspective through loans and market access to privately owned small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
The EU should emphasize its principled position that any decisions regarding the further integration of Belarus with the Russian Federation should be taken in a transparent and inclusive manner. The populations of both countries should be consulted and allowed to express their positions through democratic means, in accordance with the OSCE commitments undertaken by both the Russian Federation and Belarus.
In the field of security policy, the Netherlands and other Western countries should realise that under the current circumstances their capacity to shape security policy developments in Belarus is limited. They should therefore proceed from a ‘do no harm’ basis and be cognizant of the fact that in Russian and Belarusian narratives ‘the West’ and NATO play negative roles vis-à-vis Belarus. NATO should stay firm on principles[75] and keep investing in a robust deterrence posture on its eastern borders to reassure allied nations. Lines of communication with Minsk should remain as open as possible, including within the OSCE framework. Moreover, Belarus should also be a topic for discussion in the framework of the NATO-Russia Council. With regard to Ukraine, Western countries should continue their efforts to resolve this crisis, as it is closely interlinked with Belarus in Moscow’s strategic calculations.
NATO should particularly call on Russia and Belarus to provide maximum transparency in the run-up to, as well as during, the upcoming Zapad 2021 military exercises as required by the 2011 Vienna Document on CSBMs in the OSCE, and it should lead by example by being transparent about its own exercises and military deployments in the region. NATO and individual allies should try to assess Zapad 2021 as professionally as possible, without resorting to undue alarmism that would play into Moscow’s and Minsk’s hands.
Despite their shortcomings, economic sanctions remain one of the few sources of significant EU leverage over both Belarus and the Russian Federation. The EU should be mindful of the interlinkages between the economies of the two countries within the framework of the two integration projects: the Union State and the Eurasian Economic Union. In order to reduce the risk of sanction-busting and increase the effectiveness of the measures the sanction regimes against Belarus and Russia, although designed separately, should be as congruent as possible and the specificities of individual sectors – such as the Belarusian and Russian potash exports - should be taken into account. The EU should also strive to co-ordinate its sanction policy closely with the United States and the United Kingdom.
However, EU member states ought to remember that negative conditionality – that is, reinforcement by punishment rather than reward – has rarely been a successful strategy on its own. Not only do sanctions reinforce a ‘bunker mentality’ that allows elites to divert domestic criticism of economic tribulations towards external actors, they also carry a real risk of forcing countries to ‘band together’, as is presently the case with Belarus and the Russian Federation. The EU should therefore complement its punitive approach with a longer-term strategy of positive economic reinforcement towards Belarus, to be deployed in the case of a change in course by the current regime or future governments.
Such as those enshrined in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, the 2002 Rome Declaration (NATO-Russia Relations: A New Quality) and various OSCE documents.