Wednesday

18th Jan 2017

EU to end five-year freeze in Belarus relations

  • Brutality and jailings after 2010 elections saw EU blacklist Lukashenka (Photo: EPA)

EU states have decided to dissolve most Belarus sanctions for strategic reasons, despite the still “dismal” human rights situation in the country.

Ambassadors in the political and security committee in Brussels on Friday (12 January) opted to scrap asset freezes and visa bans on president Alexander Luksahenko, 169 other members of the nomenklatura, and three companies.

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They maintained sanctions on four people directly implicated in the vanishings of opposition activists. They also kept an arms embargo.

The move is to be endorsed by EU foreign ministers on Monday and to be inscribed into law later in the week.

The ministers will say, according to a draft statement seen by EUobserver, that “there is an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop on a more positive agenda and that progress … can better be achieved through enhanced channels of communication.”

They’re to say the EU “remains concerned with the situation of human rights”.

But the draft text praises the Lukashenko regime for releasing political prisoners, holding violence-free elections last year, and taking part in EU initiatives, such as EU-Belarus human rights talks and visa-facilitation talks.

“The [EU] Council also values Belarus' constructive role in the region,” the text adds, referring to Lukashenko’s refusal to endorse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his hosting of two rounds of Ukraine peace talks.

It urges Belarus to hold fair parliament elections this year and to fully rehabilitate former political detainees.

It says if things go well, economic and trade perks may follow, including more project-funding by EU banks, the EIB and EBRD.

Winter 2010

EU-Belarus relations went into deep freeze in the winter of 2010, when Lukashenko’s forces beat protesters and jailed opponents following rigged elections.

The prisoner release, last August, was widely seen as Minsk’s attempt to win back Western friends in the face of Russian revanchism.

But a UN special rapporteur said earlier this week “the dismal state of human rights has remained unchanged in the country”.

He said one cultural activist, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, is behind bars. Many dissidents still face legal proceedings. Others are in forced exile and civil society faces “systematic harassment”.

EU sources say Germany pushed for the detente for strategic reasons, however.

One source familiar with the German position said: “The Minsk process [Ukraine peace talks] started there, so there’s no doubt a strategic positioning of Belarus between the EU and Russia.”

The source said it’s “too early” to open EU financial aid taps.

“It’s not a good moment to give signs we want them [Belarus] to draw away too far from Russia,” the source said, amid German concern on Russia provocation.

A second EU source said: “We see an opportunity to bring Belarus closer … We’re not naive that it will fully change. But it’s worth a try.”

“It needs alternatives to Russia, in terms of borrowing money and project financing.”

Mixed reaction

For his part, Andrei Dynko, the editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, an independent newspaper in Belarus said the authorities will “rejoice” at the EU news.

“The authorities will rejoice but human rights defenders and opposition leaders will have reservations,” he told EUobserver from Minsk.

“However weak or symbolic, the sanctions were the only thing preventing a deterioration in the situation,” he said.

But he added that Lukashenko’s position on Ukraine should be “rewarded”.

“Lukashenko’s approach helped to prevent a big war in the region,” he said.

Ukraine, Russia lists

EU states are also preparing, later this month, to extend the life of Ukraine and Russia blacklists.

An EU source said the list of 17 Ukrainians designated for stealing money is to be extended for one year.

But one name is to be dropped because “the funds have been brought back to the Ukraine state budget, so there’s no legal reason to keep them on the list.”

The source said the list of 149 Russians and Ukrainians and 37 entities designated over the invasion of Ukraine is to be extended by six months.

The source noted that if the European Parliament opts to restore normal contacts with the Russian Duma, then EU states might delist some Russian MPs.

But for his part, Elmar Brok, the German centre-right politician who chairs the EU assembly’s foreign affairs committee, told this website Russia must first lift its visa ban on dozens of MEPs.

“No. The conditions are not right for that [restoring inter-parliamentary cooperation] so long as members of the European parliament are on a Russian blacklist,” he said.

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