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The desire to return to 2018 is understandable but unrealistic

Author Mikhail Kiryliuk: NAM lawyer. Source:

The emergence of a more moderate opposition is a sign of the modern time. This opposition is rational, convenient, and pragmatic, willing to be flexible and explore various options. As the administrations of Lukashenko and Putin continue to control Belarus, more individuals will be inclined to seek a middle ground between Voskresensky and Gaidukevich.

The reasons behind this trend are clear. 

Many people have grown weary from the prolonged struggle, as their initial hopes for an early victory following the high political activity of Belarusians in 2020 have not materialized even after three years. Unfortunately, the war has played a significant role in diverting attention and impacting more lives than the Belarusian elections. 

Many individuals are tired of living in exile and are willing to consider compromises with the Lukashenko and Putin administrations to return to Belarus.

Democratic forces now face a challenging choice: to continue existing in exile, to withdraw from politics altogether, or to risk imprisonment. It is natural for politicians to desire the ability to influence the situation within their country, and it is evident that there are fewer opportunities to do so from abroad. Therefore, it is normal for them to seek ways to return to their homeland.

The desire to outmaneuver Lukashenko, make promises to alleviate repression, and revert to a time when the media operated freely, public criticism of the authorities was possible, and participation in ministry events and making proposals were feasible (I, too, had this opportunity) is understandable. 

Nostalgia for 2018, when it was possible to openly wear embroidered shirts, attend Belarusian language courses, and live an ordinary life in Minsk, is a normal sentiment. The desire to free political prisoners at any cost, some of whom are slowly being killed in prison, is entirely justified.

As a result, we are witnessing an increasing presence of voices in the media advocating for "negotiations," a "compromise position," the "withdrawal of radical demands," and a call to "look at things realistically." However, the tone of these publications often resembles calls for capitulation. In certain cases, there is nothing inherently wrong with adjusting strategies, changing deployment, or even capitulating. For instance, Ukrainians evacuate populated areas if it is the only way to save their people

In my perspective, it appears illusory to believe that there are conditions in 2024 under which such a return is realistic. It is unlikely that there exists a specific formula that democratic forces can offer to Lukashenko to gain his agreement.

What do you think, even if Tsikhanovskaya, Latushka, BYPOL, BYSOL, and all the iconic figures in exile turn to the commission for return with consent to return and renunciation of their demands with one single condition - to release the prisoners, will this request be heard? I'll bet you 10 to 1 that it won't. Why would Lukashenko need that?

Since 2020, Lukashenko has increasingly relied on Russia rather than the Belarusian people to maintain power. In Russia, the government sees the army, nuclear weapons, oil and gas fields as the sources of its stability, while the people are viewed as sources of problems.

Even if, in a fantastic scenario, Lukashenko wishes to resolve the political crisis in a civilized manner and release key figures from the democratic forces, it would be logical for the Putin administration to oppose this outcome. Such a development would undermine the stability of Lukashenko's power and, consequently, threaten Russia's military presence in Belarus, which they actively utilize during their aggression.

If hypothetical negotiations were to take place, they might unfold as follows:

Lukashenko: Give me all your property, renounce your political views, betray your relatives and supporters, and go to prison, where you will probably die. I will release you if I feel like it, but even after your release, you will remain under 24-hour surveillance, much like Protasevich.

Democratic politicians (surprised): Why would we agree to that?

Lukashenko: Well, as you wish.

If there were any meaningful purpose behind the return commission, it would not be a problem for the Lukashenko administration to showcase a "successful example" of its work over the past year: an emigrant applies to the commission, takes an oath, and is ceremoniously relieved of responsibility for extremist charges for a period of 10 years. They would then be able to return to Belarus, walk around Minsk, go skiing in Silichi, and share their experiences on social media. However, as we can observe from the commission's actual practice, it was only assigned imitation tasks.

The current configuration of political forces entails that confrontation is perhaps the only viable option for both sides. The war, first and foremost, leaves its mark and significantly affects the strategies employed by politicians.

Our situation is often compared to that of Ukraine and Israel. People remind us that despite intense confrontation, Ukraine manages to get  the heroes of Azovstal back home, while Israel retrieves hostages taken by Hamas. This statement implies that only the short-sightedness of our leaders prevents us from engaging in such an exchange. However, there are certain differences between our realities. Belarusians lack a proper exchange fund. We do not hold figures like Karpenkov, Karaev, or Kolya Lukashenko hostage, as Ukraine did with Medvedchuk, nicknamed "Putin's godfather." We are deprived of the opportunity to carry out bombing raids against Drozdy like Israel does in relation to Hamas.

Among the tools of confrontation at our disposal are sanctions, and their impact on the opposite side is not nearly as destructive as the previous examples.

If Ukraine receives weapons from the West and chooses how to use them, then in the case of sanctions, both the choice of "weapon" and "target" are completely in the hands of EU and US politicians. Belarusian politicians can only submit their analysis of the situation and proposals.

From this stalemate, some influential figures in public opinion conclude that sanctions need to be made weaker, reducing pressure. In our opinion, the opposite is true. To act as a worthy subject of negotiations, the degree of pressure needs to be increased, not decreased.

For a long time, Lukashenko tried to put pressure on the EU with the help of the migration crisis and even resorted to military threats from the Wagner PMC in an effort to escalate the conflict. However, after the three countries simultaneously promised to close the border synchronously and completely in the event of armed provocations, the attempts at escalation stopped.

But maybe sanctions only harm those Belarusians who have the lowest salaries and who are unable to influence Lukashenko's administration?

On the contrary, it is Lukashenko who is destroying the economy more than any sanctions. The faster Belarus gets rid of him and begins the transition to a healthy economy, the faster the cause of poverty for Belarusians will disappear.

According to colleagues' observations, in Russia, after 2014, entire departments of lawyers worked in international legal corporations in the area of sanctions. Currently, legal conferences are being held in Russia, where panels are devoted to actually circumventing sanctions legislation. Lukashenko introduced criminal liability for calling for sanctions and puts people behind bars for decades under this article for a reason. This is not how you fight a non-existent threat.

Meanwhile, in the current situation, we have enough room for maneuver:

  1. Twelve times more sanctions were imposed against the Russian Federation than against Belarus. Their synchronization will hit the regime not only directly, making it difficult to make money from the war, but also secondarily, making it difficult to make money by circumventing sanctions.

  2. The opening of at least a few criminal cases in the EU against representatives of the regime who help circumvent sanctions will bring the release of political prisoners closer than dozens of declarations and resolutions. This is the direction in which it is worth working. Moreover, there is more than enough evidence for criminal prosecution.

  3. A significant proportion of what is now called "weak sanctions" are not really sanctions at all. This involves counterfeit or smuggling, where a sanctioned product is moved under the guise of an unsanctioned product. Tracking illegal sales using fake documents doesn't require any new laws. We need determination to strictly control the laws that already exist. Existing legislation is more than sufficient for criminal liability.

  4. EU law enforcement authorities should begin to prosecute the change of destination of goods. There are also all the necessary reasons for this: the transit of goods using deliberately false documents is a crime in all countries at any time.

All these actions do not require any supernatural efforts. But the result—a free Belarus—could be the straw that breaks the back of Putin's camel.




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