By Joanna Sopinska
The European Parliament has called for the reintroduction of a visa ban along with a set of "targeted economic sanctions" against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his regime, including a freeze on all macrofinancial aid provided via the IMF, the EIB and the EBRD, in retaliation for the brutal crackdown on post-election protests, on 19-20 December 2010 in Minsk. At the same time, MEPs called on the European Commission to support, "with all financial and political means," Belarusian civil society, by inter alia redirecting European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and national assistance to NGOs, independent media ventures and scholarships for students repressed for their anti-regime activities.
"The sanctions should remain in force minimum until all political prisoners and detainees are released and exempted from charges," said the joint resolution adopted by a large majority, on 20 January.
Addressing the debate preceding the vote, on 19 January, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, admitted that "the time has come to act". She echoed Parliament's call for an immediate and unconditional release of all political detainees and the re-opening of the OSCE office in Minsk. Ashton also spoke in favour of tough sanctions against Lukashenko's regime and increased support for Belarusian civil society, including by the facilitation of visa policy. "This reaction should give a clear signal of our views to the authorities in Belarus without isolating citizens and civil society," Ashton said.
MEPs welcomed the "good example of the Polish government and the Lithuanian parliament, which imposed their own travel restrictions" and "at the same time simplified access to the European Union for Belarusian citizens". In a gesture of "solidarity" with the "democracy movements" in Belarus, Warsaw waived, as of 1 January 2011, visa fees for Belarusian citizens. In addition, on 18 January, it unilaterally imposed visa sanctions on Belarusian officials involved in last month's vote rigging and the post-election crackdown. "I want to encourage member states' consulates in Minsk to facilitate the delivery of visas as an ad-hoc measure in the interest of the Belarusian citizens," said Ashton.
Speaking on behalf of the Christian Democrats, Jacek Protasiewicz (Poland), chairman of the EP Delegation for Relations with Belarus, called for sanctions against the Belarusian government. "International foundations and the European Parliament should have no dealings with the Belarusian authorities, as the recent presidential election was neither democratic nor legitimate," Protasiewicz said. Estonian MEP Kristiina Ojuland (ALDE) argued that the participation of Belarus in the EU's Eastern Partnership programme and any other form of cooperation with Belarus should be suspended until all political prisoners are released. The scheduled 21 January inauguration of Lukashenko will become a "Black Friday, a continuation to the Bloody Sunday of 19 December," said British MEP Richard Howitt (S&D). In a gesture of protest, the EU's representative will not attend the ceremony, the Commission's spokesperson said, on 20 January.