EU Countries Mull Sanctions against Belarus

EU diplomats are considering imposing sanctions against the top leaders of Belarus, where President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, known as 'Europe's last dictator', ordered a violent crackdown on opposition candidates and protesters. EurActiv Germany contributed to this article.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her US counterpart Hillary Clinton strongly condemned violent repression by the Belarusian authorities of protests following presidential elections held on 19 December, which observers say were rigged.

Several hundred Belarusian riot policemen used batons and shields to disperse a crowd of at least 10,000 protesting against the re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka for a fourth term and demanding a second round of voting.

Many were beaten and more than 600 activists, journalists and ordinary Belarusians were arrested. Five former presidential candidates and 14 other opposition activists were detained.

On 3 January, Belarus freed one of five opposition presidential candidates it has held since the election. But Minsk also decided to shut down the mission of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in the city.

An EU diplomat told EurActiv Germany that the objectives of possible sanctions would be threefold: freeing political prisoners, strengthening civil society in Belarus and punishing those who were involved in the attack.

The source argued that what was now needed was an "unambiguous" signal and EU diplomats were mulling possible concrete steps that could be taken. One option would be to renew visa restrictions against Lukashenko and his team.

According to the source, EU leaders have so far pursued very approaches to the issue. Nevertheless, the EU's 27 foreign ministers will have to agree upon a common position by 31 January at the latest, during their Foreign Affairs Council.

One of the countries likely to oppose sanctions is Italy, which has very close ties to Belarus. Lukashenka even paid a visit to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the Pope in April 2009.

Belarusian Ambassador to Germany Andrei Giro told in an interview that since 1986 Rome and Minsk had enjoyed a special relationship.

Although Italy is reportedly least in favour of sanctions, other countries are also divided over how severely the bloc should react.

Carrot and stick

Speaking to German press agency DPA, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called for an easing of EU travel restrictions for ordinary Belarusian citizens in order to "explore new ways of communicating with Belarus".

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis reportedly said that "whatever decisions the European Union may make with regard to its future relations with Minsk, we'll do everything for civil society to continue to develop and strengthen".

The Dutch approach, meanwhile, is much tougher. Dutch Christian Democrat MPs, for example, protested to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton about a planned visit by Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov to Brussels.

The visit, said to have been scheduled for yesterday (10 January), should be postponed, they said, until a common EU position has been established.

Ashton's office today (11 January) denied that such a meeting had been scheduled in the first place.

Diplomatic working committees of the 27 member states are currently debating the issue of whether and how to widen sanctions.