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19th Aug 2018

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EU ponders sending back Belarus ambassadors

EU diplomats will on Friday (17 March) discuss whether to send back their ambassadors to Minsk following a diplomatic row over sanctions.

Foreign relations spokesowman Maja Kocjancic told EUobserver on Friday morning that no decision has yet been taken. She noted that EU countries are working on "a co-ordinated approach" to avoid the envoys trickling back one by one instead of in a joint EU action.

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The ambassadors left in late February in solidarity with the EU envoy to Minsk and Poland's ambassador in the Belarusian capital, who were kicked out after the EU added 21 jurists and policemen to its blacklist of over 200 regime officials. It also threatened measures against an oligarch in President Alexander Lukashenko's inner circle.

In Minsk, EUobserver last week met with members of the fragmented opposition, activists and human rights defenders. Most praised Ashton’s decision to pull the envoys, while Lukashenko told reporters that the EU has "no balls."

The rare display of EU solidarity caught the regime by surprise, said Valentin Stefanovich, the vice-president of the Belarus human rights center, Viasna.

Lukashenko has in retaliation imposed a ban on 148 Belarus intellectuals, activists and members of the opposition from leaving the country.

Most have no idea they are on the list, although the New York Times reports that around 10 journalists, opposition members and human rights defenders have been informed.

Stanislav Shushkevich, a former head of state of Belarus, told EUobserver in Minsk that his name is also on the KGB register. Shushkevich intends to travel to Vilnius on 19 March. "We'll see what happens when I try to cross the border," he said.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament in a resolution on Thursday urged Belarus to release political prisoners and said the EU should in the meantime impose broad economic sanctions.

After Russia, Europe is Belarus' number one trade partner. Belarus potash, petroleum products and oil are sold to sveral EU member states in large quantities. Some of the profits allegedly go to support Lukashenka and his regime.

The MEPs' resolution also says the world ice hockey federation should pull its 2014 championship from Belarus.

Lukashenko is an ice-hockey nut and often goes to the Minsk Arena, the planned venue of the 2014 event, to play the game. He has constructed dozens of "ice-palaces" around the country, while banners in the capital already promote the international hockey extravaganza.

Separately, Belarus has refused to back down on its position on the death penalty.

Last April, a bomb ripped through a metro station in central Minsk, killing and wounding dozens of people. Two men were apprehended hours later, with Lukashenko announcing on the radio the next morning both their names and their culpability.

The men have been sentenced to death, even though their lawyers and human rights groups say their trial was a farce based on confessions extracted by torture. In Belarus, the death penalty is a single gun shot to the back of the head. The bodies are disposed of in secret locations and family members are not informed.

"I was deeply saddened to learn that President Lukashenko has refused to pardon Uladzislau Kavalyou and Dzmitry Kanavalau," said EU parliament chief Martin Schulz on Thursday.

Belarus executions compound EU outrage

Belarus has executed two men despite an international appeal for clemency, just as EU countries start talks on whether to impose extra sanctions.

EU ambassadors trickle back to Minsk

All EU ambassadors are returning to Minsk in a bid to improve deteriorating relations with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, in power for the past 18 years.

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