EU to impose travel ban on Lukashenka

By Toby Vogel

Dozens of officials 'were involved in election fraud', while Only the release of political prisoners will end ban.

The European Union will shortly impose a travel ban on Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the leader of Belarus, in response to a brutal crackdown on the country's opposition.

Dozens of officials involved in what the EU believes to have been the rigging of Belarus's presidential election on 19 December and in jailing opposition supporters will also be banned from entering the EU, diplomats say.

The travel bans would remain in effect until the release of all political prisoners, according to sources involved in the planning.

Member states' security ambassadors will meet in an extraordinary session of the EU's Political and Security Committee (PSC) tomorrow (7 January) to discuss a draft list of Belarusian officials to be denied entry to the EU.

The list has been compiled by EU and member states' diplomats in Minsk, who have also endorsed the outline of possible sanctions and measures.

In addition to the visa bans, the measures include: an immediate review of the country's participation in the EU's Eastern Partnership; continued pressure for the release of all Belarusians detained in the post-election crackdown, who are to be treated as political prisoners; and assistance to those arrested or beaten by security forces and to their families.

Emergency meeting

The PSC discussed the situation in Belarus at an emergency meeting convened on 28-29 December to discuss violence in Cote d'Ivoire. The meeting, a diplomat said, showed a shared determination by the member states to "strongly respond" to the post-election crackdown.

Visa bans and asset freezes on Belarusian officials were imposed in 2006 following an earlier flawed presidential election. They were largely suspended in 2008 as a signal to Lukashenka that democratic reform would bring benefits to his country, a decision that was highly controversial among the member states. One diplomat said that his government had argued at the time against the outright lifting of sanctions and now felt vindicated by recent events.

Germany led a group of countries that was keen on lifting the sanctions altogether, but the current, centre-right government of Chancellor Angela Merkel is in favour of re-imposing them.

A 23 December commentary co-authored by Carl Bildt, Karel Schwarzenberg, Radek Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle - respectively, the foreign ministers of Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany - said that Lukashenka had "no democratic legitimacy whatsoever" and that engagement with him "seems to be a waste of time and money".

'Civil-society investments'

Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a Polish centre-right MEP, said that Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, should be "asked to step in" and to undertake a review of the EU's relations with Belarus. "Our message should be as clear and strong as possible," he said. He called for a "massive investment in civil society", such as scholarships for Belarusian students to attend EU universities. MEPs are meeting on Wednesday (12 January) to discuss the situation in Belarus.

Saryusz-Wolski, a member of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said that the EU should appoint an ambassador to Belarus but not dispatch the appointee. The EU, he said, would thus send a double signal that it cared about the country but was not ready for business as usual. The procedure to appoint a head of the EU's delegation in Minsk is ongoing.

Poland, one of Belarus's immediate neighbours, last week decided to waive visa application fees. It is urging other members of the EU's Schengen area to consider waiving all visa fees.


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