Controversy over alleged attack on EU ambassador in Belarus

Bass relief on the Church of Saints Simon and Helena in Minsk, also known as the Red Church, where the alleged attack took place (Photo: wikipedia)


EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Information has come to light that the Hungarian ambassador in Minsk was on 19 December hit on the head by police in a development with potentially grave implications for EU-Belarus relations. But Hungary denies the incident took place.

The ambassador, Ferenc Kontra, is currently in hospital in Minsk due to an eyesight problem and was unable to attend a meeting of EU heads of mission from Belarus in Vilnius, Lithuania last Friday (20 January).

Two senior diplomatic sources told this website that Mr Kontra confirmed to fellow ambassadors that he was hit but that the attack is unconnected to his eye problem.

A third source said the incident took place outside the so-called Red Church beside the city's main Independence Square on the fringes of mass protests against Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko on the evening of 19 December. The source said another Hungarian diplomat was hit in the kidneys on the same night outside the Hotel Minsk further away from the square.

EUobserver has learned that the Lithuanian ambassador, Edminas Bagdonas, was also roughed up on the night after going to observe the protests.

The information has provoked anger in some EU capitals. "Even if the [Ferenc] eyesight problem is not linked, I don't think this kind of 'therapy' did anything to help," one EU diplomatic source said. "It's like the police were hunting us."

For its part, Hungary is staunchly denying that the beatings ever took place. "I have checked and there were no beatings. No one was hit," Mr Kontra's deputy, Laslo Darotsy, told EUobserver by phone from Minsk on Monday.

The reports come amid sensitive EU talks on whether or not to impose a visa ban on Mr Lukashenko and to cancel billions of euros in potential economic assistance due to his crackdown on the opposition. The Hungarian foreign ministry has said it is in favour of sanctions. But it is also trying to play the role of neutral mediator in its EU presidency hat.

The EU sanctions debate is coloured by fears that Russia will boost its influence in Belarus if the EU steps out.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last Thursday told press that he is ready to give Mr Lukashenko $4.1 billion in 2011 in the form of oil subsidies and to grant loans for building a $6 billion nuclear power plant in Belarus. "As far as I know, the Russian parliament is not going to pass any declarations, resolutions or other documents [condemning the 19 December crackdown]," he added.

A recently leaked US cable from Karen Decker, the US charge d'affaires in Talinn, Estonia, dated October 2009, gives an insight into Mr Lukashenko's thinking on the EU.

The dispatch says the Belarusian leader at a 90-minute-long meeting with Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet said: "he and several members of the opposition had once been allies who 'drank vodka and womanized together.' However, these people had turned against him (Lukashenko) after he refused to give them promotions."

"Lukashenko also told Paet stated [sic] that the EU's 'ridiculous sanctions' had not weakened Belarus. In fact, Lukashenko told Paet he had specifically ordered his government, 'to do nothing to please the EU' before the EU discusses extending sanctions at the November Gaerc [a 2009 meeting of EU ministers which saw the EU suspend its previous visa ban]," the cable went on.

"He claimed that Ukraine undertook numerous reforms to 'please' the EU and Nato, but that now Ukraine is no nearer membership in either organization and is in economic and political ruin."

The European Commission says that if the EU does impose fresh travel sanctions, they would not automatically cover other members of the EU's passport-free Schengen zone - Iceland, Norway and Switzerland (where Mr Lukashenko likes to ski).

The Swiss foreign ministry in a statement emailed to EUobserver at the weekend indicated that it may take parallel action, however. "Switzerland is closely watching the situation in Belarus and is prepared for any appropriate action," the communique said.


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