EU Gears Up To Widen Belarus Sanctions

By Rikard Jozwiak

BRUSSELS -- The European Union is likely to add another 19 names to its list of Belarusian officials who are subjected to visa bans and asset freezes.

The decision could come as early as March 21, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels to discuss the situation in Belarus.

In January, the EU imposed sanctions on the country's president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and 157 other Belarusians after the violent crackdown on people protesting Lukashenka's disputed election victory in December.

Brussels then vowed to closely monitor the situation in Belarus and revise the sanctions list if progress was made.

But since the EU imposed sanctions -- and the United States took similar punitive action -- courts in Belarus have jailed several opposition activists for up to four years, and a former opposition presidential candidate has alleged he was tortured in jail.

Opposite Trend

Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL that the list can be amended at any time depending on developments in Minsk and that the addition of names signifies a negative trend.

"I think we were quite clear on what we want to see, and that is the release of all political detainees, which has not happened," Kocijancic said. "Actually, the trend goes in the opposite direction, which is in sentencing and convictions of these people. "

Speaking to RFE/RL, the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, said that the names added to the list are individuals such as prosecutors and judges who in recent weeks have been sentencing people from the opposition.

"It is also people that have been involved in the trials because the trials are really ongoing at the moment. People who have been expelling people from universities also," Bildt said. "Those are two sectors that we are looking on at the moment."

As was the case in January, Poland has been pushing to top up the list, whereas Italy has been dragging its feet, arguing that sanctions have a limited effect. The hesitation from Rome might slow down the process, but EU officials have told RFE/RL they are certain that a consensus will be reached.

'Getting Closer To Russia'

The former Belarusian presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich says he believes that the EU's attention and firmness is a reassuring signal to Belarus's democratic community. He is, however, wary that the move might increase Moscow's political influence in his country.

"The regime tries to create a cushion from effects of EU sanctions by getting closer to Russia and giving up more of our sovereignty. For Russia, it is a very expedient moment for anchoring Belarus even more in its orbit," Milinkevich said in an e-mail to RFE/RL.

Apart from adding new names to the list, the EU is also likely to revise it after finding out that the original list contained the name of a dead judge.

Yuri Sivakov, a former interior minister, was also omitted from the initial asset-freeze list but will be added this time around.

An EU diplomat explained that the gaffes had come about due to the translation from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet and that the EU embassies in Minsk had forgotten to crosscheck some of the older names on the initial sanctions list drawn up after the 2006 elections in Belarus.

The foreign ministers might also discuss additional measures, such as economic sanctions on Belarusian state companies and financial institutions.

'Quasi' Economic Sanctions

The EU last week added the Libyan central bank and four other economic entities to its sanctions list as a response to the bloody clampdown on antigovernment demonstrators and fighters by the Qaddafi regime.

A council source told RFE/RL that a similar move is "unlikely" due to the relatively few foreign assets owned by the Belarusian state. Brussels is also cautious not to punish the Belarusian people directly.

The EU member states are, however, exploring the possibility of imposing "quasi" economic sanctions on companies responsible for producing tear gas and other equipment used on demonstrators. An EU official said that the EU would be "creative" in this respect but acknowledged that the "scope was limited."

Whereas the EU shut the door on people connected to the regime in Minsk, at the same time it pledged to increase the possibility for ordinary Belarusian citizens to obtain visas to Europe's border-free zone, Schengen.

This visa facilitation is ongoing, but the Polish deputy to the European Parliament, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, says he believes that both the European Commission and individual member states need to be more active with both negative and positive measures.

"It is good that there is an extension to the people who deserve to be put on the black list," he said. "But it doesn't mean that it is enough what the union is doing vis-a-vis Belarus. We should continue to be much more demanding vis-a-vis the authorities and the regime, and negative about all the violations of standards of human rights and freedom. At the same time, we should be much more generous towards the society, civil society, NGOs, opposition and dissidents and all those who are in prisons."

Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden have considered scrapping visa fees for Belarusian citizens, and Bildt points out that an easing is under way.

"What we have been doing is that we try to ease things for primarily students and younger persons. That means that we issue visas that are long-term; we make them free of charge," Bildt said. "Not for everyone, because there are people in Belarus that can pay, businessmen and others. But for young people and others, we are doing that and that's done by basically all the relevant countries."

As foreign ministers meet on March 21, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, will discuss how to increase support for both independent media and Belarusian NGOs with various donors in Brussels.

A fund-raising conference in Warsaw in February pledged 87 million euros ($120 million) to Belarusian opposition movements, and Fuele has so far indicated that he won't move budgeted money from the Eastern neighborhood to the countries in the Southern Mediterranean -- an argument floated by Spain in the wake of the uprisings in many Arab countries.


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