Euro Parliament Committee To Meet On Belarus As Brussels Mulls Sanctions

The European Parliament's foreign affairs committee is set to discuss the current situation in Belarus together with members of the Belarusian opposition in a special session on January 12.

The gathering is a prelude to a meeting of the full parliament later this month, when the chamber is expected to adopt a resolution condemning the events during and after the disputed December 19 election and demanding the release of those imprisoned in recent weeks. The parliament is also expected to call on the European Union to liberalize its visa regime for ordinary Belarusians.

Lithuanian MEP Justas Vincas Paleckis, who is also a member of the European Parliament's delegation to Belarus, says the EU needs to facilitate greater contacts between European and Belarusian citizens.

"The European Parliament has always tried to create more possibilities to increase more contact with other people," Paleckis says. "One of our demands is for the European Commission to remove visa barriers. This financial Berlin wall created by high visa issuing cost should be demolished."

Further 'Isolation'?

Opposition figure Alyaksandr Milinkevich will address the committee on January 12, pointing out that 30 individuals, including four presidential candidates, remain in prison. He favors a dual-track approach that would reimpose visa sanctions on Belarusian officials while lifting visa requirements on ordinary citizens.

Milinkevich tells RFE/RL ahead of the meeting that Brussels "should try to isolate the regime" in Minsk while being "more open and accessible" to the country's citizens.

"It is very important that sanctions will be imposed against the regime that violated the law and at the same time, Europe must open up to ordinary [Belarusian] people," he says. "Belarusians pay more for visas than any other European for a Schengen visa, 60 euros compared to 35 euros for Ukrainians or Russians. The price should be lowered and the aim is for visa-free regime."

Neighboring Poland and Lithuania have so far unilaterally dropped visa fees for citizens from Belarus.

Meanwhile, the European Council is due to make a decision about imposing visa restrictions for officials responsible for the violent crackdown after the election.

Several names have been put forward by EU diplomats in Minsk, but there is no clarity on how many Belarusian officials will be added. EU diplomats say the final list might comprise of up to 100 individuals.

There are 34 Belarusian officials on the current visa sanctions list, which the EU imposed following the disputed 2006 elections. The ban was suspended in 2008 as Brussels tried to convince Lukashenka that democratic reform would bring benefits to his country.

For And Against

There is a broad consensus within the European Council that the sanctions should now be revived and strengthened. The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Poland are the strongest advocates of such a move.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt says he wants "a clear signal sent to Minsk as soon as possible."

Much depends on whether Italy and to a lesser degree, Portugal and Spain, will support tougher sanctions.

Italy has argued that it is better to keep all channels of communication open when dealing with Lukashenka's regime, but EU officials speaking on condition of anonymity say in the end Rome is unlikely to oppose further visa sanctions.

Italy is also keen to await the outcome of Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau's visit to Brussels this week. Martynau met the EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele in the Czech capital, Prague, on December 10 and is due to meet with the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a last-ditch attempt to avoid visa sanctions.


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