Belarus faces bruising sanctions


For Europe's last old-style dictator, this has become the week when the walls close in, as neighbouring democracies move to deprive his regime of travel, money, skilled citizens and - perhaps most galling - hockey.

Alexander Lukashenko, in his 17th year as President of Belarus, received sharp rebukes and outright threats on Thursday from the leaders of the European Union, the United States and a number of European democracies, all of them outraged by a December election in which at least seven opposition presidential candidates were severely beaten or imprisoned.

The European Parliament Thursday called for the near-complete isolation of Belarus through restrictions on travel of leaders, the freezing of government assets, bans on investment and cross-border trade, freezing of foreign aid and, perhaps most alarming for a hockey-loving nation, the stripping of Belarus's right to host the 2014 world hockey championship, which the country has been planning for years.

"Alexander Lukashenko's government lacks democratic legitimacy," said Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, as the European Union discussed a package of sanctions that could be imposed as early as next week.

Even more creative is Poland's decision to punish its neighbour Belarus by removing all visa requirements for Belarussian citizens - but not leaders - and allowing free movement across the border, which had previously been heavily policed.

"This is a very clever way to bring about change, because it essentially means that the country will quickly lose its most skilled and talented citizens, but the only way to stop it will be for Lukashenko to close the border himself, from within, which would make him look even more authoritarian to citizens. It puts him in a position where he may have to back off," Arkady Moshes, a Belarus specialist with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, said in an interview yesterday.

While Belarus has long alarmed Europeans both for its largely unreformed Soviet-style government and for feuds with Russia that can cause much of the continent's gas supply to be cut off, the latest escalation of political violence and repression had caused much deeper alarm.

The election and its aftermath were met with a campaign of arrests and harassment by the Belarus spy agency, still known as the KGB.

Europeans were horrified to read the story of three-year-old Danil Sannikov, who is set to be sent to an orphanage after both his parents, an opposition presidential candidate and a journalist, were jailed by the KGB after the election.

The EU and the United States Thursday pressed Mr. Lukashenko to release the approximately 700 political prisoners who were rounded up on election night.

While there was an unusually concerted effort to condemn Mr. Lukashenko and his regime in Europe and Washington this week, officials and activists are still divided on how to approach the problem of Belarus.

The financing and organization of opposition movements, known as democracy support, has ceased to be a popular strategy among many European governments, although the European Parliament Thursday vowed to increase funding to democracy think tanks and organizations in Minsk.

But there is a growing realization that punishment and isolation of the country could be both counterproductive and inhumane. Mr. Lukashenko has used Belarus's isolated status as a point of national pride in the past, portraying his country as a garrison state facing a hostile Russia on one side and an uncaring EU on the other.

So there are efforts, including Poland's visa-free travel regime, to help the Belarussian people (and to encourage their flight) in ways that do not support the regime.

Analysts say that Mr. Lukashenko, who in the past could turn to Russian oil and gas as his key source of financing and support, is increasingly dependent on Europe. He is in the midst of a bitter feud with Russia over Belarus's right to take cut-price oil and gas for its own use in exchange for using its pipelines to ship much of Russia's output into Poland and Germany.

The feud seemed to end in an agreement last week, but the oil is still not fully flowing. Russia is developing new pipeline routes to Europe that will bypass Belarus and Ukraine, and there is no sign of peaceful relations returning between the two Slavic countries.

"The economic situation of Belarus is bad - the regime is facing a very serious crisis so therefore it is interested in the sort of investments that can only come form the European Union and the West," Mr. Moshes said. "I suspect that this is a serious enough threat to Lukashenko that he will have to find a way to back down and compromise."


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