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New EU sanctions to hit Belarusian oligarchs

  • EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Regime-linked Belarusian firms and tycoons are to face new sanctions, while meetings with Belarusian officials are being cut to a bare minimum, the EU has said.

"These sanctions should go not only to individuals [officials], but also to entrepreneurs and firms," EU foreign relations chief Josep Borrell said in Brussels on Thursday (19 November), after speaking with foreign ministers by video-link.

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The visa-bans and asset-freezes will be designed to "disrupt their [the firms'] normal economic activity" he added, with EU countries to propose names and "supporting evidence" of regime links in the coming days.

And they are expected to hit "at least" 20 new targets and to be in force by mid-December, EU sources said.

The news comes after the EU earlier sanctioned almost 50 officials, including Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, but with little impact on his extreme violence, including murder, torture, and mass-scale jailings of pro-democracy activists.

Borrell also put forward a "comprehensive", 11-page, plan on downgrading EU relations with Belarus, seen by EUobserver, to be launched in December.

"The current political crisis could last for a certain period and it is important that the EU's positions and measures remain coherent over time," it said.

EU states ought to "maintain channels of communication" with officials up to deputy-minister level, in "technical" areas, such as aviation safety, nuclear safety, border management, environmental and phytosanitary issues, and trade "irritants", the document noted.

The European Investment Bank (EIB) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) are to maintain existing loan programmes, but funds should be "ring-fenced against the risk" they might end up in the hands of blacklisted people or entities, Borrell's proposal added.

But both the EU and the International Monetary Fund are to "completely" suspend "macro-financial assistance" to the Belarusian state budget, it said.

The EU is also ready to pay out €2.7m for "legal, logistic, and medical support to the victims of the brutal repression" and a further €1m for "support [of] independent media", as part of a €50m envelope to help people.

And it is especially keen to support Belarusian students and artists, due to "the outstanding and spontaneous creativity observed in Belarus in the last few months in support of fundamental freedoms".

But "given an extremely hostile environment, EU support should be sufficiently discreet in order not to endanger recipients and to mitigate risks of disinformation attacks," Borrell's proposal added, referring to regime propaganda on Western interference.

Belarusian opposition leaders had earlier called for EU sanctions on pro-regime oligarchs and for visa-free travel for normal people.

But the paper said that a "visa-facilitation" scheme will be kept running, while talks on visa-free travel, which require cooperation with security services, can be resumed only after Lukashenko agrees to a "democratic transition".

And if that were to happen, Borrell also promised a "comprehensive plan of economic support for democratic Belarus", including macro-financial aid, and new EU and EIB, as well as EBRD, grants and loans.

The EU does not collect data on whether member states have so far frozen any assets of those on its existing blacklist.

But Borrell noted that being listed had a lasting psychological and reputational impact.

"It is very much taken into consideration by those who are under sanctions," he said on Thursday.

The last time the EU sanctioned Belarusian oligarchs, in 2011, it prompted a wave of legal challenges in the EU court in Luxembourg, some of which the EU side lost on grounds of shaky evidence.

Lukashenko who?

But a recent EUobserver investigation bore out Borrell's assessment.

Vladimir Peftiev, for instance, a Belarusian oligarch who previously faced sanctions and who beat them in the EU court, is trying to distance himself from Lukashenko.

"Mr Peftiev has not visited Belarus for many years, does not manage any business ... and, according to [our] information, he is, at the moment, writing books," his Belarus-based law firm, Revera, told this website in October.

Dana Holdings, a Serbian-owned but Minsk-based real estate firm, with a subsidiary in EU member state Cyprus, also tried to distance itself from regime links in the current climate.

Its London and Moscow-based PR firm, EM, previously confirmed that Dana Holdings employed Lukashenko's daughter-in-law, Lilya Lukashenko.

She was listed as a "senior official" in Dana Holdings documents, but EM claimed she had been a mere "designer", who now rents one of Dana Holdings' art galleries, and who left on maternity leave three years ago.

This article was corrected on 25 November 2020. The original version said Peftiev had attended Lukashenko's inauguration, based on a photo of the crowd at the ceremony. But further research indicated that Peftiev was not in the photo in question, so this reference was removed.

EU pays tribute to Belarus 'revolutionaries'

"It's our moral duty to support them [Belarusian protesters]," EU parliament president David Sassoli told Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanvoskaya in Brussels on Wednesday.

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