EU Steps Up Pressure on Belarus Leader

EU leaders have toughened their joint stance against Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko after a police crackdown on opposition activists. But Moscow backed Lukashenko to the hilt.

On the final day of a foreign ministers summit in Brussels, the leaders said they would widen restrictions beyond the six visa bans now in place on Belarusian officials as they began to ratchet up their stance on Belarus -- which they called "a sad exception" to democracy in Europe.

Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Meller said the restrictions would come into effect around April 10 and could involve more than a dozen people.

"It's a penalty for (Lukashenko's) sins. This is a fight of good against evil," he said.

"(Lukashenko) has provided proof that he is a dictator and must be treated as such," said Elmar Brok, chairperson of the committee for foreign policy in the European Parliament in an interview with DW-WORLD.DE. Brok agreed that Europe should set up travel restrictions against Lukashenko and the members of his government. "In addition, one must think about the possibility of other sanctions," he added.

The move to extend the travel bans came hours after Belarus quashed an unprecedented protest against Lukashenko, smashing a tent camp in Minsk and arresting hundreds of young opposition activists days after the veteran hard-line leader was re-elected.

The EU moved to block Belarusian officials' visasBildunterschrift: Gro?ansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: The EU moved to block Belarusian officials' visas

In conclusions from a summit of the 25-nation bloc, the leaders "decided to take restrictive measures against those responsible for the violations of international electoral standards including President Lukashenko."

More travel bans are likely but assets could be also frozen, EU officials said.

On the final day of the summit, the leaders were united in condemning developments in the former Soviet republic, a close ally of Russia, and demanded that the authorities respect the protestors' rights.

Leaders call for the release of captive opposition supporters

"We urge the Belarus authorities to respect the freedom of assembly and to release the prisoners," said Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the EU presidency.

The Belgian presidency of the leading Western election-monitoring body, the OSCE, also called on the regime to halt the "persecution" of opposition activists and release those arrested."

"The authorities must immediately end the persecution of their opponents," the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, said in a statement.

Steinmeier wants the Belarusian opposition at the next EU summitBildunterschrift: Gro?ansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Steinmeier wants the Belarusian opposition at the next EU summit

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier condemned the crackdown on the opposition in Minsk, saying: "I urge the Belarusian government to release the imprisoned opposition politicians" and suggested inviting Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkewitsch and other opposition politicians to the next meeting of EU Foreign ministers on April 10.

Russia urged to help calm the tensions

The EU leaders urged Belarus' giant neighbor Russia to help calm the tensions.

"We have to be tough, but we also have to speak with our Russian friends, that is most important," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said: "We need to be more firm ... and demonstrate that we are united inside the European Union about how we look at the relations with Belarus but also with Russia."

Plassnik would not mention Russia by name, but her message was clear: "As we said we will continue to consult with our international partners ... this is enough."

The opposition protests began after Lukashenko was swept back to power in Sunday's presidential election -- officially winning some 83 percent of a vote condemned as unfair by the European Union and the United States.

Moscow blames OSCE of stirring up trouble

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused in turn the OSCE of inciting tensions.

"Unfortunately, we saw a situation where the OSCE observer mission began talking about illegitimacy well ahead of the elections with quite a bit of taking sides, thus playing a role of instigator," he said.

Lukashenko has almost run out of friendsBildunterschrift: Gro?ansicht des Bildes mit der Bildunterschrift: Lukashenko has almost run out of friends

Joining the chorus of Europe-wide criticism, the Slovak foreign ministry called on Minsk to end its repression of the opposition supporters.

"Belarus can only find its place in the community of democratic states if it returns to a policy that respects democratic standards and freedoms and human rights," it said in a statement.

In Budapest, the deputy Belarus ambassador was summoned to "convey the Hungarian government's protest at the use of force," a statement said.

Non-EU member Norway said the crackdown was totally unacceptable. A foreign ministry spokeswoman said: "This election has shown that Belarus is governed by an authoritarian regime that cannot be passively observed."

DW staff (nda)