EU slaps visa ban on 31 Belarus officials

06.04.06 @ 14:15

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU ambassadors approved on Thursday (6 April) a new visa ban on 31 Belarusian officials in reaction to Minsk's handling of the 19 March elections.

  • Hundreds of young opposition campaigners are still in jail (Photo: Andrew Rettman)

The list contains president Alexander Lukashenko as well as ministers and security chiefs such as Viktor Halavanu and Stefan Suharenko, and comes on top of six officials already banned in 2004.

The travel ban is set to enter into effect after it is rubber-stamped by EU foreign ministers on Monday, with further sanctions due to follow the next foreign ministers' meeting on 15 May.

The May measures under discussion include a foreign asset freeze on the 31 names and targeted trade restrictions on, for example, Belarusian arms exporters.

On Wednesday MEPs in Strasbourg together with visiting Belarus opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich called for "hundreds" of officials to be blacklisted.

The European Parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly adopted a resolution describing Belarus as "the last dictatorship in Europe" and refusing to recognise the legitimacy of its government.

But the 11 member state embassies in Minsk that put forward the 31 names say it would be difficult to enforce any massive travel bans.

"This [visa ban] is just a political signal. Whether it is 30 names or 300 is not important," an EU diplomat indicated.

Western Europe wades in

The Strasbourg session saw Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schussel and EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner calling for the release of the 500 to 1,000 people still in jail over post-election protests.

"The most important issue in Belarus right now is the freeing of prisoners," Mr Schussel said.

Prisoners are a hot topic in Warsaw with Polish diplomat Mariusz Maszkiewicz held by Minsk despite having a heart condition, while NGOs fear missing demonstrator Syarhei Atroshchanka has died in police custody.

But the cross-party and cross-member state nature of the MEPs' appeal shows that Belarus has become a truly international issue in Europe, an EU official indicated.

"The French and German governments have woken up to this," he said, with new member states such as Poland and the Czech republic previously leading the charge.

Mr Milinkevich was met with noisy applause in Strasbourg with dozens of MEPs wearing red-and-white scarves in a nod to the pre-Lukashenko Belarusian flag.

Sanctions aside, Austria, Poland, the Czech republic, Slovakia and Hungary have released extra funds to help expelled Belarusian students continue their degrees abroad.

And the European Commission is exploring ways to relax visa restrictions for Belarusian travellers by the end of this year, Ms Ferrero-Waldner promised.

Moscow the key to change

Most western analysts believe Minsk's relationship with Moscow is the key to change however.

Russia says the 19 March elections were fair but Gazprom in March threatened to quintuple Belarusian gas prices in 2007, citing market forces and World Trade Organisation rules.

The west sees the move as an attempt to strong-arm Mr Lukashenko into selling Belarusian pipelines to Gazprom and to take real steps toward a political union with Russia.

"It looks like they are saying - look at the rest of the world, we are your only friends now," an EU diplomat explained. "The regime is not based on love for Lukashenko but on cheap Russian gas and the degree of stability it brings."

President Lukashenko moved to defuse rumours he has suffered a post-election nervous breakdown by ending his media silence on Tuesday and setting a presidential inauguration date for 8 April.

"We won't yield to anyone. We have our own policy," he said on TV.

"He played [ice] hockey only on Saturday...He beat everybody by a huge score. So the state of his health is excellent," Lukashenko aide Gennady Nevysglas told press.