In Other News: Situation in Belarus, U.S. Seizes Iranian Fuel Heading to Venezuela & More – August 21, 2020

August 21, 2020

The EU has announced plans for targeted sanctions on officials believed to have been involved in rigging recent presidential elections in Belarus, which delivered yet another victory to strongman president Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has held the office since 1994. Lukashenko claimed to have won with more than 80% of the vote, triggering widespread protests that lasted for more than a week before he ordered security services to put down the uprising, which is ongoing. Since protests began on August 9, two have died and nearly 7,000 have been imprisoned, with many alleging beatings and other forms of abuse by security services. The EU also plans to sanction officials involved in repressing protests. Lukashenko has sought to pin blame for the demonstrations on foreign influence and funding and has called for tighter border controls to prevent movement of fighters or weapons into the country and heightened scrutiny of NATO movements in Poland and Lithuania. The EU’s narrow, targeted sanctions are seen as an attempt to avoid accusations of meddling on the protesters’ behalf. Russia has echoed Lukashenko’s concerns about foreign interference and has pledged it will not engage in direct military intervention, but if Moscow stays true to form it will likely find less conspicuous ways to intervene to prevent Belarus from tilting towards Europe, (propaganda, funding, cut-rate energy supplies, etc).

The U.S. government seized 1.1 million barrels of Iranian fuel heading to Venezuela last week. The high stakes at sea operation to enforce U.S. sanctions involved negotiations with a Greek shipping magnate, George Gialozoglou, to forfeit the fuel without the use of force. A U.S. judge issued the warrant for the seizure, considering the shipment of Iranian fuel on four Greek-owned tankers to be in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran. In the legal opinion of the United States, oil sold by the Iranian National Oil Company helps to fund Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States in 2019. Reportedly, the seized fuel will be sold on the open market and the money will go to a victims of terrorism fund. Meanwhile, Venezuela, which supposedly paid for the fuel up front, will not receive anything. Venezuela has been suffering from extreme gasoline shortages due to its own ailing oil infrastructure, the current economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, and U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, which were imposed in 2019 as well. Earlier shipments of Iranian fuel did make it to Venezuela in late May and early June despite U.S. warnings.

Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was ousted in a military mutiny on Tuesday after months of anti-government demonstrations over corruption, economic mismanagement, growing insecurity, and allegations of electoral malfeasance. The U.S. has expressed concern that an increasingly unstable Mali could become a hub for violent extremists throughout the region. A prior coup, in 2012, led to a rebellion that allowed militant jihadist groups to expand throughout large parts of the country. Mali’s West African neighbors (particularly Burkina Faso and Niger, which have also been subject to increasing militant attacks) fear that Mali could once again be forced to cede territory to militants and are seeking to mitigate the risk that those forces grow unchecked at their borders. While the military has announced plans for a transitional government, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has called for Keïta’s reinstatement and plans to send envoys to continue negotiations which began prior to the military incursion. ECOWAS is also concerned about setting a precedent where military takeovers become the norm in lieu of negotiated political solutions. France has been spending heavily to help stabilize Mali since the 2012 coup – shelling out nearly $1 billion a year – with some drone support from the U.S., but these efforts have thus far failed to mitigate the problem. West Africa is not at the forefront of U.S. policy priorities at present, but a collapsed state that is at the center of transnational extremist activity will eventually become a global problem.