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22nd Jan 2022

EU to lift Belarus sanctions despite vote rigging

EU states plan to suspend Belarus sanctions despite monitors' reports that Sunday’s (11 October) election was rigged.

The international monitoring group, the ODIHR, said on Monday the vote “indicated that Belarus still has a considerable way to go in meeting” democratic norms.

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  • Minsk: Election marked by low turnout, large protest vote, Nasha Niva newspaper says. (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Kent Harstedt, a Swedish MP who led the mission, said in Minsk: “I was especially disappointed by shortcomings during counting and tabulation”.

The ODIHR said the vote count was “bad or very bad” in 30 percent of the 169 counts it was allowed to observe.

It also spoke of “ballot box stuffing”, bogus voter lists, exclusion of some opposition candidates, and media bias for the incumbent leader, Alexander Lukashenko.

On the plus side, it reported there was no violence, as in 2010.

It also highlighted that a woman, Tatsiana Karatkevich (who is critical of Lukashenko), was allowed to run for the first time.

The European Commission "took note" of the ODIHR report on Monday, adding: "It is important that the election day was held in a peaceful environment".

Meanwhile, individual foreign ministers, speaking in the margins of a meeting on Syria, said the vote-rigging won’t affect previous EU plans to suspend sanctions.

They said the plan - to temporarily lift the visa bans and asset freezes between 31 October and 28 February - comes after Lukashenko freed political prisoners in August.

They also said it comes for strategic reasons.

“If we close the door to Europe, then Belarus’ future will have just one direction … Russia”, Poland’s Grzegorz Schetyna said.

Germany’s Frank-Walter Steimeier said the prisoner amnesty means there’s “progress”.

French EU affairs minister Harlem Desir said the sanctions “can be put in place again immediately” if Lukashenko launches a new crackdown.

For his part, Lukashenko on Sunday made capital out of the EU suspension.

He said “[The EU] has realised the sanctions are detrimental and that Belarus is a decent state, that a normal people lives here”.

Meanwhile, individual Belarusians showed defiance on the day.

Natalia Harachka, a mother of four, and an independent observer at ballot station number one in Minsk, where Lukashenko went to vote, refused to shake his hand in front of cameras.

She later told Nasha Niva, an independent newspaper: “I saw a very tired, frightened man. He looked disappointed and offended”.

Andrei Dynko, Nasha Niva’s editor-in-chief, told EUobserver she’s unlikely to face punitive action. But he said she won’t be allowed to observe votes in future.

He noted the official result - that Lukashenko won with 84 percent on a turnout of 87 percent - has “little to do with reality”.

“Based on the independent reports we were able to gather, in Minsk, in some regional towns, and in rural areas, not a negligible amount of people boycotted the election and not a negligible amout voted for non-Lukashenko candidates, such as Karatkevich”, he said.

He said the mood is surprising given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Lukashenko portraying himself as a guarantor of Belarusian sovereignty.

He also said most Belarusians welcome the EU sanctions suspension because they hope for better ties “in the long term”.

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