EU and Belarus preparing extra counter-measures
As EU ambassadors begin leaving Minsk for home, both sides are already preparing fresh counter-measures against each other.
One of the EU envoys said he and his peers will trickle away by car and plane before the weekend, after member states on Tuesday (28 February) recalled "for consultations" all of their top diplomats in solidarity with Brussels and Warsaw, whose envoys were kicked out by Belarus.
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The embassies and consulates will function as normal under charges d'affaires. But it is uncertain when ambassadors will return.
"I think the period of consultations will end when political prisoners are released and rehabilitated and there is no more need for sanctions," the EU envoy said. Asked by EUobserver if this could take months or even years, the source added: "It is possible."
An EU diplomat in Brussels noted: "We haven't had a discussion on conditions for going back. You cannot assume there will be a joint EU decision for everyone to go back at the same time."
EU diplomats say the regime is now preparing to ban 100-or-so leading opposition figures, including trade unionist Alyaksandr Yarashuk and journalist Zhanna Litvina, from leaving Belarus.
Belarus has also warned it might force EU embassies to reduce staff to skeleton level, disrupting day-to-day work, as with the US embassy in 2008. If things keep escalating, future options include sanctions against EU companies working in Belarus and prohibition of transit of EU goods and citizens through the country. The toughest measure would be to stop Russian gas transit to EU neighbours, but this is unlikely, as it would also cut off Russia's Kaliningrad exclave.
For its part, the EU is preparing to add one or more Belarus oligarchs to its blacklist in March.
President Alexander Lukashenko's personal friend - real estate tycoon Yuriy Chizh - is the top candidate, but other names, such as Aleksander Moshensky (food), Alexander Shakutin (construction) and Paul Topuzidis (tobacco) could join him.
The decision to expel the EU and Polish ambassadors has hardened the stance of long-standing anti-Lukashenko EU countries, such as Lithuania and Poland. But it has also generated new enmity among old EU member states who used to care little about Belarus.
"Belarus is certainly back at the top of the EU agenda," a diplomat from one western EU country said.
"Maybe Lukashenko was trying to send a signal to the EU that we can put sanctions on as many policemen and judges as we like but we should think twice about nailing to the wall some of the oligarchs ... If that was his reasoning, it failed. We don't have any problem with registering as many oligarchs as he has," a contact from another large member state noted.
This week's events have a precedent in the so-called Drozdy dispute in 1998.
EU and US ambassadors in June that year quit Minsk because Lukashenko tried to bully them into leaving a leafy residential compound - Drozdy - after he moved there himself. "He was angry because they watched him from their windows while he was walking or cycling around," an EU contact said. His methods included cutting off water and electricity and trying to weld shut the gate of the US envoy's home.
The ambassadors came back in 1999 after Belarus pledged to respect the so-called Vienna Convention on diplomatic privileges.