Belarus retaliates against West with sanctions

MINSK - Reuters

Belarus said on Thursday it had barred entry to European Union and U.S. officials in retaliation to a similar ban by Western countries to denounce President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election.

Western countries, long critical of Lukashenko's tough line on dissent, dismissed as blatantly rigged Lukashenko's landslide victory in March giving him a third term in office.

Both the EU and Washington barred the president and more than 30 other officials linked to the election. Sanctions also included a freeze of bank deposits held by officials abroad.

"Retaliatory measures have been introduced for the European Union and United States," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov told a briefing.

"They are based on the principle of reciprocity."

Popov declined to reveal who was on the list.

"The list contains the most offensive political figures who have shown themselves to be in the forefront of not wishing our country well," he told reporters.

"These are people who actively interfered in Belarus's internal affairs during the election campaign. These are people who continue to appeal for the imposition of serious economic sanctions against our country."

Minsk had previously refrained from retaliatory moves, though it barred flights by aircraft carrying U.S. and Canadian delegations after those countries refused to refuel a plane taking Belarus's prime minister to and from Cuba.

Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has made it clear since his re-election that he has no intention of altering the policies which have attracted such widespread Western condemnation.

Western countries accuse him of cracking down on opponents, closing down media not loyal to his administration and hounding independent cultural institutions. They also demand explanations for the disappearance of several prominent figures.

U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney last month repeated Washington's contention that Lukashenko headed "Europe's last dictatorship."

Lukashenko retorts that his policies have improved living standards, kept industry out of the hands of post-Soviet "oligarchs" and preserved stability absent in neighboring ex-communist states. He remains broadly popular.

Official results credited Lukashenko with 83 percent of the vote in March to 6 percent for his nearest opponent, liberal academic Alexander Milinkevich.

The result prompted protests up to 10,000-strong in normally tightly-controlled Belarus, tolerated by police for four days before they were dispersed. More than 600 protesters were sentenced to up to 15 days in jail for public order offences.

Milinkevich later embarked on a tour of EU capitals, but was handed a similar jail sentence after subsequent protests. Other opposition leaders were also jailed.