After Belarus was thrown into the negative spotlight once again following attempts to force sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya home from the Olympics, Tony Lloyd argues that sanctions must be strengthened and unified to hit the Lukashenko regime hard.

The Belarus government came under international condemnation for rigging the presidential election last August, but that was not the first time that Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko stole an election – it is rare, after all, that someone stays in power for nearly three decades through entirely fair means.

In the past, this has gone largely unremarked by the rest of the world. The difference this time was the scale of the demonstrations that followed. Tens of thousands took to the streets across the country for week after week despite the significant danger of arrest and attack by the security forces, continuing to do so even as leading opposition figures were either imprisoned or forced to flee Belarus.

Just as the scale of the demonstrations was unprecedented in the history of independent Belarus, so was the level of repression. What civilised government hijacks a plane to arrest a journalist, sees several of its citizens die in suspicious circumstances and presides over a prison system where the use of torture and rape is widely reported?

There are now over 600 recognised political prisoners in Belarus, including journalists imprisoned just for doing their job, and there have been an estimated 37,000 politically motivated detentions since August 2020. That's not even to mention the attempt to force an athlete to quit the Olympics and the creation of a migrant crisis in Lithuania, as the Lukashenko regime shuttles thousands of people across the border in response to its neighbour's strong backing of sanctions and support for Belarusians forced to take shelter there – including the Leader of Democratic Belarus (and likely election-winner) Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who is now based in Vilnius.

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The UK, US and EU have responded to the regime's actions with sanctions, particularly since the hijacking of the RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius carrying journalist Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend. These have targeted individuals tied to the regime and increasingly sectors of Belarus's economy, while also banning aviation to and from Belarus and diverting planes to avoid the country's airspace.

It is important that sanctions hit the decision-makers and key backers of the Lukashenko regime. Unfortunately, the lack of unanimity between the UK, US and EU sanctions regimes means that Mr Lukashenko can slip through the loopholes. Prominent individuals have also been able to sidestep sanctions, at least temporarily; despite being sanctioned by the EU in June, it took until 9 August for the UK to finally add the Russian oligarch, long-time Lukashenko associate and UK property owner Mikhail Gutseriev to its sanctions list.

It is also time to examine the assistance that the Lukashenko regime receives from international funds. Despite the public support for the Belarus opposition from the West, with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya meeting both Joe Biden and Boris Johnson in recent weeks, they have still waved through a package of IMF funding which will hand the Lukashenko regime the equivalent of nearly $1 billion.

Along with a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, I wrote to the Chancellor on 20 July to ask him to ensure that the Lukashenko regime does not receive this funding. The Chairs of the bipartisan Friends of Belarus Caucus in the US Congress wrote to the Acting US Executive at the IMF on 2 August also opposing the allocation of funds to the regime.

However, we cannot rely on sanctioning alone and isolating the regime to result in positive change. The opposition and civil society need much greater backing, both financially and even more so politically. There was an opportunity to further legitimise Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in the eyes of the world when Emmanuel Macron suggested that she be invited to the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. Unfortunately, the UK decided not to do so, and missed the chance to send a powerful message that Mr Lukashenko will be just a footnote in the history books, and the Belarus people will be free to decide their own future.

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