Saturday

4th Apr 2020

EU sanctions causing pain for Lukashenko

EU countries are probing who else to hit with sanctions in President Aleksander Lukashenko's nomenklatura. But the existing blacklist of 245 people is already causing discontent inside his ranks.

"There are still plenty of people left to add. The heads of mission in Minsk are working all the time, sending lists of names to Brussels ... New names could appear on the [sanctions] list in the next few days or weeks," an EU diplomat said.

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  • Police swoop down on protesters: Belarusians are being harassed by short-term arrests in a bid to avoid EU counter-measures (Photo: charter97.org)

Some potential targets include members of the government said to have direct involvement in Lukashenko's private money-making schemes: Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, deputy prime minister Vladimir Semashko and border guard chief Igor Raczkowski.

Belarusian oligarchs believed to pay tithes to Lukashenko in return for permission to do business are also in the firing line. The roll call includes: Yury Chizh, who runs the Triple group of companies active in chemicals, health spas and retail; construction baron Alexander Shakutin; tobacco and retail millionaire Paul Topuzidis; and milk and seafood seller Aleksander Moshensky.

Day-to-day bullying of opposition activists is seen as enough reason by EU countries to keep turning the screw. But a tough reaction is almost inevitable if Lukashenko adds Ales Bilalitski - a prominent human rights campaigner currently on trial - to his set of 15 political prisoners.

Some believe the EU sanctions are not causing the 57-year-old leader to lose much sleep - Dzianis Melyantsou, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, said officials on the EU blacklist see it as a "manifestation of the highest loyalty toward the president."

And there are many ways for Lukashenko to avoid losing income from the EU's asset freezes and commercial bans.

His sons, Dmitry and Viktor, are on the EU blacklist. But their positions on the National Olympic Committee of Belarus - not covered by EU sanctions - gives them access to money laundering structures. Opposition media also reports that Viktor's wife, Liliya Lukashenko, is using the Cyprus-registered firm, Eastleigh Trading, to secretly invest family money in Minsk real estate.

One EU ambassador in Minsk said the sanctions regime is causing distress, however.

"There is a symbolic aspect - people feel marked out as having done something wrong," the contact said. "It is working: They cannot go to Vilnius, to Warsaw or other EU cities to accompany their husbands or wives for shopping. People are angry because they think they are suffering due to someone else's policies."

In one marker of effectiveness, at least three people on the EU blacklist have hired lawyers to lodge appeals at the EU court in Luxembourg. One of them, oligarch Dmitry Peftiev, whose business interests in the EU were hit in June, is spending money on top Lithuanian law firm Lawin to fight his case.

An opposition activist who asked to remain anonymous told this website: "The oligarchs use Lukashenko as a shield for their operations. As soon as he becomes a problem for them, or no longer useful, they will kick him out ... the question is, who could replace him?"

The Bilalitski case aside, diplomats also noted that Lukashenko has changed methods to try to get under the EU radar. One contact said: "Instead of jailing people for years at a time, police are arresting them for three days or 10 days, letting them go, then arresting them again. The thinking is, it's not enough of a big deal for us to react. But how can anybody live like this?"

The nuclear option is to go for economic sanctions against major exporters to the EU such as fertiliser firm Belaruskali and oil products company Belnaftakhim.

It is not on the cards for now, not least because EU countries Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Poland do big business with Belarus - over €6 billion worth last year.

The mantra of the anti-economic-sanctions group in the EU is that the measures would hurt ordinary Belarusians. But opposition activists do not buy the line.

"This is the same thing that Lukashenko's lobbyists in Europe are saying. But it's not true. Belarusians already have such a tough situation that if they have to live on $50 a month instead of $100 it wouldn't be a problem. It would be a problem for the nomenklatura, who use this money to distribute favours and influence," independent Belarusian journalist Pavel Marozau said.

Marozau noted that the main impact on ordinary people from EU sanctions so far is on hunters and sportsmen, who used to buy rifles in Lithuania but who now have to get their Lithuanian friends to buy the equipment for them instead.

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