KYIV, Ukraine—After Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s brutal crackdown on the mass protests that erupted last August in opposition to his clumsily rigged reelection victory, many Western countries spoke up in dismay at the level of repression he unleashed. More than 30,000 people have been arrested, according to human rights groups, and brutal beatings of detainees are common. In response, the United States and the European Union imposed several rounds of sanctions, targeting scores of Belarusian officials with asset freezes and travel bans, while issuing statements emphasizing the Belarusian people’s right to a fair vote.
But more than six months later, Lukashenko is still clinging to power. His vast and loyal security apparatus appears busier than ever: To date, more than 250 people have been recognized by a local human rights group as political prisoners. Just last week, a court sent two Belarusian journalists to prison for two years for the simple act of live-streaming a protest, prompting the U.S. to slap visa restrictions on several dozen more regime loyalists.
That raises an uncomfortable question for the West: How much leverage does it really have against Lukashenko’s regime? The answer, experts say, depends on how constructive and well-crafted its approach will be going forward.