Estonian PM: Belarus sanctions can stop Lukashenko

TALLINN — Alexander Lukashenko will eventually run out of money if the EU keeps hammering him with sanctions, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told POLITICO, as the bloc scrambles to corral the Belarusian leader’s repeated attempts to threaten the EU.

In recent days, the Belarusian leader has pushed several thousand migrants to the country’s heavily fortified border with Poland, leaving them stranded in freezing temperatures and unable to cross into Poland — an act EU leaders have dubbed “hybrid war.”

Speaking in a meeting room at the prime minister’s headquarters in the Estonian capital, Kallas called the border standoff “very worrying,” noting it was also affecting fellow Baltic states, including Lithuania and Latvia, which share a border with Estonia. Kallas, in power since January, said the situation was “a security issue for the whole of our region.”

Strict sanctions, she stressed, are the answer.

“What we see from our intelligence is that sanctions really work,” Kallas said. “The sanctions that are hurting the regime will make a difference because he will eventually run out of money, which he needs to pay the salaries for the people on the border … like the police or the security forces.”

Currently, the EU is preparing a fresh wave of sanctions against Belarus, aiming to punish the airlines and officials facilitating Lukashenko’s plot to lure migrants from the Middle East to Belarus before forcing them to the EU border.

Belarus’s behavior, Kallas argued, is an assault on the entire EU “because it’s the outside border of the European Union.” And, she noted, migrants who enter the EU may then move elsewhere, like Germany or the Netherlands.

Lithuania has raised another concern about Belarus’s plot: It may allow individuals with alleged terrorism links into the EU. Thus far, Vilnius has not offered specific evidence for this claim.

While the Baltic countries share intelligence, Kallas didn’t say whether Vilnius had given Estonia access to this particular information. But, she stressed, “I totally trust the intelligence that they have.”

Separately, Kallas said she recently spoke to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to offer help. Warsaw has been criticized for not accepting assistance from some of its outside partners, such as the EU’s Warsaw-based border agency Frontex. But Kallas was reluctant to join this criticism, only arguing she would act differently “because we are a small country.”

Kallas was a bit more vocal, however, on another issue regarding Warsaw — rule of law.

Poland is currently locked in a fight with the EU over allegations Warsaw pushed reforms to undermine the country’s judicial independence. The EU has withheld millions in pandemic recovery funds to Poland over the spat.

Generally, Baltic countries have been reluctant to join the criticism of Warsaw over these concerns. But, Kallas emphasized, rule of law is “also a basic value in Estonia.”

“It’s not only a legal issue, it’s also an economical issue,” she said. “We need investments to our economy, and the investors only come if they can trust the legal system.”

“The scenario that we don’t want to see,” she added, “is that Poland is pushed away from Europe. Because Poland is part of Europe, Poland is a big country.”

Estonia and Poland also share a similar hawkishness toward Russia, which borders Estonia.

Speaking Tuesday night to defense officials gathered in Tallinn for the Annual Baltic Conference on Defense, Kallas described Russia as “the most serious threat” to the NATO military alliance.

And speaking to POLITICO, she argued the current energy price hike — and Russia’s reluctance to quickly up its gas supply to the EU — is opening Europe’s eyes to Moscow’s behavior.

In Estonia, a country of 1.3 million people, natural gas amounts to less than 8 percent of the country’s energy mix, compared to the EU’s 22 percent. Of that 8 percent, the share of Russian gas imports is around 85 percent, according to figures provided by the government. 

“We are not dependent,” she said. “European colleagues didn’t listen to us very carefully, maybe they were considering and saying that, ‘You know, we always talk about bad things about Russia, but it’s not really so.’” 

Now, it’s clear to all, she argued, “that Russia is using this as a tool that is hurting many European countries.” Moving forward, she added, Europe cannot give Moscow the ability to “manipulate with supply.”

Kallas, 44, also reflected on her transition to Estonia’s top job, making her the country’s first female prime minister. She recalled that in the meeting room — the same where the interview was held — she had to be guided to the prime minister’s chair at early gatherings. 

Yet as a former MEP and daughter of an EU commissioner, Kallas is far from a political novice. And she described the close rapport EU leaders have developed across frequent meetings throughout 2021, an outgrowth of the regular EU leaders’ summits. 

Kallas said she texts with several of the leaders (although she wouldn’t name names). 

The EU leaders are comfortable enough that Kallas said she detected some jealously during her recent trip to the COP26 climate conference in Scotland. “There were 140 leaders of all around the world … and with the European heads of state and prime ministers, we meet so often that we are like a club of friends,” she said. “It’s very hard to explain, but it’s a very good feeling.”

“I think,” she added, “the many regions actually envy our close relations.”

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