By Ahto Lobjakas
The EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said in a statement today that the recent arrests of Belarusian opposition figures are "unacceptable" campaign violations in the run-up to the country's presidential poll on March 19. Ferrero-Waldner repeated an EU threat of "targeted sanctions" against top Belarusian officials if the elections are not free and fair. However, the EU will withhold final judgment until March 20, when the bloc's foreign ministers meet in Brussels. Click here for a full interview with Ferrero-Waldner.
BRUSSELS, March 16, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In a sign that new sanctions against the Belarusian leadership appear increasingly inevitable, today's European Commission statement roundly condemned the repressions unleashed by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka against his political opponents.
Three days before the poll, Ferrero-Waldner described the series of campaign violations as "completely unacceptable."
The commissioner's spokeswoman Emma Udwin read out the statement to journalists in Brussels: "The new wave of arrests of opposition leaders in Belarus over the last two days is completely unacceptable. I [that is, commissioner Ferrero-Waldner] am dismayed by reports that Anatol Lyabedzka, a prominent member of the united opposition front that I had met in Strasbourg last autumn, has been arrested along with other members of the team of the registered candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in the last 24 hours. Such arrests have no place in the conduct of free and fair elections."
Ferrero-Waldner renewed her earlier call on the Belarusian authorities to release immediately those opposition members who are currently still detained.
She also deplored the fact that a European Parliament delegation of election observers was denied visas and had to cancel their trip.
The statement also condemned the arrest of several members of nongovernmental organizations, among them a Scandinavian team of election experts, as well as the decision to deny access to numerous foreign journalists.
Possible EU Measures
Udwin said today that it is too early to say what specific measures the EU could take should the elections be judged not free and fair. The EU currently upholds a visa ban on six top Belarusian officials, among them Lukashenka.
But, Udwin stressed today, whatever additional measures the EU will take, they will be targeted and will not harm the Belarusian people: "It is clear that we have no intention of taking any measures that would harm the population of Belarus. If a decision is taken to undertake further restrictive measures those measures will be targeted on those who are deemed to be responsible for elections that are judged not free and fair."
Privately, officials talk of extending travel restrictions and possibly the freezing of assets held by Belarusian officials in banks in the EU. However, these are decisions the 25 EU member states must take jointly. Their foreign ministers will be in Brussels on Monday, but EU officials say it may be too soon to expect detailed decisions from that meeting.
Meanwhile, the European Commission reserves judgment on whether anything could be yet salvaged from the elections or whether the damage done by Lukashenka's regime is already irreversible.
Spokeswoman Udwin says the EU must defer to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has a observers in Belarus, and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
"The point is that these elections are being observed in a professional and formal manner by the OSCE/ODIHR. They will, in just a few days' time now, make their report following polling day," Udwin said. "They will make their report and since our 25 member states contribute to that observation mission, contribute observers to that mission, we will wait to see what guidance, what advice they give."
The OSCE is expected to release its first report on the elections on March 20.
Privately, EU sources have said they fear that a premature wholesale condemnation of the election process ahead of polling day would remove any incentives for the Belarusian authorities to adhere to international standards.