EU to Extend Belarus Visa Ban List Following Opposition Leader's Jailing


The EU plans to add up to four names to its list of Belarus officials banned from entering the bloc in response to the jailing for five and a half years of opposition leader Aleksander Kazulin. "There is a discussion on adding some names of those officials most directly involved in the trial, but it is 90 percent sure that it will happen," an EU official told EUobserver on Thursday.

The final decision will be made at EU ambassador level "a few weeks from now" the source added, after Kazulin lost his appeal on Wednesday and declared that he plans to go on hunger strike. Minsk prosecutors sentenced the presidential candidate on charges of "hooliganism" in July after he led street protests following president Aleksander Lukashenko's disputed re-election in March.

The topic of extending the visa ban list came up during a meeting between fellow Belarus opposition leader, Aleksander Milinkevich, and Finnish prime minister Mati Vanhannen in Helsinki on Wednesday. "We have found understanding on the issue of increasing sanctions against officials of Belarus who violated the electoral code and are involved in repressions against the Belarusian nation," Milinkevich said after the talks, NGOs report.

The extension would stretch the list of Minsk officials banned from the EU from 31 to 35, with president Lukashenko himself included on the register in a bid to discredit his regime in ordinary people's eyes.

Belarus has in the past made light of EU sanctions, saying visa bans "show the lack of genuine political will on the part of the EU to engage in political relations" while cultivating contacts with states such as Cuba and Venezuela instead.

The EU is also gearing up to remove trade preferences on Belarusian exports of minerals, textile and wood into the EU on grounds of violation of international trade union conventions, in a bid set to impact some ?390 million a year of Minsk's foreign income. Member states are set to green light the move at an experts' meeting on 25 September before a formal decision at the EU foreign ministers' meeting on Oct. 16-17, with the tariffs kicking in six months down the line.

The move has caused controversy, with some new member states and Milinkevich warning that trade sanctions could impact ordinary Belarusian people and could damage the EU's image in Belarus. "We had no choice. It was up to the Belarusian horse to move and it did not move. They did not present any new initiatives, any material to counter it," the EU official stated.

Burma is the only other country in EU history to face suspension from the so-called Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) trade scheme, which also covers other widely-criticized states such as Cuba and Uzbekistan.

The latest report from Bratislava-based NGO Pontis on the political situation in Belarus suggests that opposition momentum gained in the 19 March anti-Lukashenko protests is slowing however. "Belarusian experts forecast two major trends for the near future," the study says: "Continuation of the current inclination to conformism by the majority of the population and a further decline in opposition membership, plus the increased tendency of marginalized opposition groups to take radical and uncoordinated steps."