EU and US line up sanctions as Belarus election drama nears climax

By Mark Beunderman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU and US are lining up a series of sanctions against Belarus in the event of a negative OSCE judgment on the 19 March presidential vote, with western observers saying unfair elections are a foregone conclusion.

EU and US cooperation was highlighted on Wednesday (15 March) by a joint letter to the people of Belarus from MEPs and the US House of Representatives.

The letter, signed by the heads of the two parliaments' foreign affairs committees, condemned the "ongoing erosion of freedom by the Belarusian government" and warned that unfair elections "will inevitably result in a further isolation of the Belarusian government from the international community."

EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Christina Gallach confirmed that Brussels and Washington have been "working closely" on Minsk in recent months, declining to say what sanctions are in the bag for now.

But a US House of Congress hearing on 9 March gave a preview into the possible line of action, with leading analyst Celeste Wallander recommending a laundry list of moves to 14 senators on the security and cooperation in Europe committee.

The measures include: non-recognition of the Belarusian government; calling for new elections before the end of the year; a comprehensive visa ban and foreign asset freeze on politicians and civil servants; international investigations into missing dissidents; suspension of WTO membership talks and "targeted" trade sanctions.

"You are going to have to get the club out and start beating on people. And it's going to have to be real, and it's going to have to be effective," senate committee chairman Sam Brownback said.

But Belarus foreign minister Sergei Martynov told Reuters on 15 March "We may assume that there is a share in incomes of any Belarusian family that is formed by exports to these countries."

"I do not believe that such measures would make the EU popular with Belarusians."

TV shows and newspaper articles in Belarus portray the EU and US as plotting to overthrow president Alexander Lukashenko.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has also warned against outside "interference" with its ally.

Pre-election tension rising

The past three weeks in the run-up to the vote have seen Minsk ratchet up pressure on the opposition campaign, with pro-democracy candidate Alexander Millinkevich enjoying more popular support and international prominence than previous opposition efforts in a 2004 referendum and the 2001 presidential vote.

A Millinkevich rally in Minsk on 2 March saw some 5,000 people take to the streets in a dress-rehearsal for post-election protests, with the latest study by Bratislava-based NGO Pontis calling the rally an "important psychological breakthrough" and predicting that Millinkevich could take 25 percent of the vote.

The same day police beat up opposition firebrand Alexander Kazulin in front of Polish photographers, with daily detentions of opposition campaigners, expulsions of unofficial international observers and seizures of pro-democracy campaign literature characterising the pre-election environment.

"Already today this election does not meet international standards," Polish MEP Bogdan Klich said in Strasbourg on 14 March after an ad hoc delegation of seven MEPs was refused visas to travel for the poll.

Belarus has invited 450 international observers under the OSCE banner however, as well as another 300 to 400 from post-Soviet countries, in what one western diplomat described as "a careful balancing act" in Minsk's effort to claim international credibility for the vote.

"Statements made before the elections that they are allegedly undemocratic, that they are allegedly not free, that they are allegedly rigged prove that the diagnosis has been already made," Minsk's Mr Martynov indicated.

"The authorities of Belarus are not sitting with an open mouth and expecting that the elections will or will not be recognized by external factors."

Mr Lukashenko enjoys genuine political support from older and rural sectors of the country's 10 million strong population, with independent studies showing that 65 percent of Belarusian respondents see their country as "calm" and 81 percent "appreciate" president Lukashenko's promises of good living standards.

Risk of violence

If the drama plays out as expected in the west, with elections judged unfair and some 10,000 to 20,000 protestors on the streets of Minsk on Monday calling for a "denim revolution," it is hard to say how Minsk authorities will respond.

Some analysts predict low-level beatings and police skirmishes to disperse the crowds as in 2004, but one western diplomat stationed in Minsk warned EUobserver that president Lukashenko is capable of ordering more severe reprisals and has a firm grip on senior military command.

Polish diplomats say Mr Lukashenko's election campaign manager and former secret service chief, Viktor Sheiman, has been involved in the disappearances of dissidents in the past.