Dealing with dictators: Why the West sanctions some and rewards others

(By Deutsche Welle) The US and EU have long condemned the dictatorship in Belarus. Yet Arab strongmen like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi received military support from the West. How should Washington and Brussels deal with dictators?

Grassroots uprisings have gripped not just the Arab World as of late. Last December, around 15,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Minsk to challenge the manipulated presidential election that awarded long-time Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko another term in office with 80 percent of the vote.

The Belarusian security apparatus struck back and effectively decapitated the opposition. Around 600 protesters were arrested as well as eight of the nine candidates who ran against Lukashenko. In a little over a month, the EU and the US had imposed travel restrictions and asset freezes on more than 150 members of the country’s political elite.

But as uprisings spread across North Africa and the Mideast, both the EU and the US responded tepidly as friendly dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi used violence against peaceful protesters to maintain their grip on power. In the case of Mubarak, sanctions were not imposed at all. And although the US and EU condemned the recent violence in Libya, imposed sanctions and have now launched military action, they have a history of cooperating with Gadhafi’s now embattled dictatorship.

Double standard

According to Kimberly Ann Elliott, an expert on economic sanctions, the West has been reluctant to isolate authoritarian regimes in the Mideast because they often further important national interests regarding energy, immigration, terrorism and Israel. But the leadership in Minsk has few strategic assets it can offer the West to distract from human rights abuses like the post-election crackdown.

“In the case of Belarus, you have a small country that is of little or no strategic interest,” Elliott, who is affiliated with the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Deutsche Welle. “It’s easy for the US and Europe to support democracy and human rights and impose sanctions very quickly there because there are no competing interests.”

Belarus has a symbolic importance for the EU and US, says Jana Kobzova with the European Council on Foreign Relations. As the so-called last dictatorship in Europe, the Lukashenko regime challenges the West’s vision of a continent whole and free. But in the case of Libya, a popular uprising against Gadhafi’s dictatorship can affect oil prices, which have a concrete impact on the financial health of large EU members such as Spain and Italy.

“Just throwing their support behind the opposition without really thinking about whether Gadhafi is going to stay or not, that’s a huge problem,” Kobzova, who has worked for democratization in Belarus, told Deutsche Welle. “I’m not saying it is right or wrong. But the situation and the stakes are much higher in some countries than in others.”

Engage and then isolate

Prior to the crackdown in Belarus, Minsk and the West had pursued a policy of rapprochement after years of estrangement. If Lukashenko would deliver on political liberalization, the EU promised to increase financial assistance and high-level diplomatic engagement. In keeping with this agreement, Minsk allowed opposition candidates to campaign and debate publicly in the lead-up to the presidential election.

However, when the opposition took to the streets to protest the results, the Lukashenko government made a violent show of force. The West then reimposed sanctions on Minsk, returning to the policy of isolation that it had pursued for over a decade with little effect.

According to Kobzova, maintaining the appropriate balance between isolation and engagement when dealing with dictators is a tricky policy proposition.

“You don’t want to see the EU engaging a dictator, which Lukashenko still is,” Kobzova said. “At the same time the fact that you stop communicating with the regime is not going to help you achieve any of the goals you have in a country like Belarus. The first thing is to have a strategy that is proactive, which means…you want to see this country transformed into a democracy.”

Stefan Meister with the German Council on Foreign Relations says Iran serves as an example of what happens when an authoritarian regime becomes too isolated. The West has ratcheted up sanctions against Tehran as a result of the international dispute over its nuclear program. However, sharper sanctions have created little in the way of concessions.

“When we look at the example of Iran, sanctions don’t do anything,” Meister told Deutsche Welle. “It’s not a policy that will bring about regime change. In fact, it may strengthen the regime domestically.”

Sanctioning dictatorship

Meister, an expert on Belarus, says a long-term democratization strategy requires reaching out to civil society groups while at the same time specifically targeting the authoritarian regime with punitive economic measures.

“In the case of Belarus it makes sense to impose sanctions because the regime is already under massive economic pressure and something can possibly be achieved with sanctions,” Meister said. “But sanctions cannot be the only means. You have to support certain groups in the population, in civil society – you have to make offers in the education sector and with exchange programs.”

That is because sanctions have only a limited impact, according to Elliott, an expert on the subject. Sanctions are often effective in achieving modest goals, like the release of political prisoners. But they rarely force dictators to change their behavior toward broader issues like human rights and the rule of law.

“Democratization and regime change are pretty difficult goals, especially with autocracies,” Elliott said. “Quite often you are giving up absolute or a great amount of power for no power and no chance of returning to power. And potentially in some cases, where the government is corrupt, you’re giving up wealth and risking your life.”

Limited influence 

Even when the West does decide to act aggressively by imposing sanctions, these punitive measures often miss their mark. Elliott says that is because dictators like Lukashenko normally have plenty of time to spread their assets to avoid taking a financial hit.

“Typically the move to these kinds of sanctions is announced in advance of imposition so there’s always time for these guys to move or hide their assets,” she said.

Meister acknowledges that the West has only a limited influence on authoritarian regimes. He says that while the EU and the US need to speak a clear language and support pro-democracy movements, they should not get their hopes up.

“This double-sided policy has to be reevaluated,” Meister said. “Is it really wise to support certain regimes simply to maintain stability? There’s a lot of flawed policy here, both in the cases of Belarus and North Africa. We often support exactly the forces that we don’t want to support. We have to ask ourselves whether we can really democratize other countries.”

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