31st Oct 2020

EU renews Belarus sanctions ahead of Minsk opposition rally

EU states have formally extended diplomatic sanctions against Belarus for one year ending 10 April 2008, forbidding 35 Belarus officials - including president Lukashenko - to enter the EU.

The move, initially agreed three weeks ago, was rubber-stamped by EU farm ministers in Brussels on Monday (19 March), despite Minsk's recent drive to improve relations with Brussels as its old alliance with Moscow continues to unravel.

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The sanctions extension comes after Minsk last week first arrested and then quickly released two high-profile opposition activists - Vintsuk Vyachorka and Vyachaslau Siuchyk.

Other actvists - such as presidential candidate Aleksander Kozulin - remain in jail however, while Mr Vyachorka and Mr Siuchyk will face trial on 23 March in a process that could still see them behind bars during a planned 25 March opposition rally in Minsk.

"This [the quick release of Mr Vyachorka and Mr Siuchyk] is a good sign...but you could hardly call it a big step, as it is just going back to the same situation we had before," NGO activist Olga Stuzhinskaya said.

"If they released Kozulin that would be a real step. But unfortunately there are no signals we can expect anything on that any time soon," she added.

The 25 March rally in central Minsk will commemorate last year's mass protests against Lukashenko, when thousands of people risked their lives to express anger at rigged presidential elections.

The Minsk event will see parallel activities in EU capitals such as Berlin, Warsaw and Brussels this week, such as performances in the EU capital by Belarusian underground artists' group Free Theatre.

In an ironic twist, EU27 leaders will the same day in Berlin celebrate the EU's 50th birthday, with part of the birthday declaration devoted to the "dark" topic of the Cold War, of which Belarus - often dubbed Europe's "last dictatorship" - remains a relic.

In the early morning hours of 19 March - the actual date of last year's presidential elections - Belarusian opposition supporters in 60 European cities and 30 countries worldwide gagged statues and hung banners saying "Give a voice to the citizens of Belarus."

Lukashenko off to Kiev

Meanwhile, talks are ongoing between Minsk and Kiev for a potential visit next week by Lukashenko to meet Ukraine's pro-EU president Viktor Yushchenko. The Kiev meeting could also see former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski attend to hold informal talks with the Belarus pariah.

The draft agenda includes new cooperation on aid to victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. But Kiev has also volunteered to act as a go-between for Brussels in terms of pushing for political reform in Belarus.

"I'm sure they will talk about these issues. But I don't expect any kind of breakthrough in terms of EU-Belarus relations to come out of this," an EU dipomat said.

The evolving situation in EU-Belarus relations comes after Russia spiked Belarus' energy prices in January in a move that could destabilise the country's fragile economy.

Belarus ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Senko, recently told EUobserver the energy price hikes are designed to push Belarus into an unwanted state union with Russia in a scheme that could see the state "become some 69th department" of Russia.

Brussels gives moral support to Minsk protesters

The EU has sent a high-level message of support to the 6,000 people expected to gather outside president Lukashenko's palace in Minsk on Sunday to mark last year's protests against fake elections, but prospects of a metamorphosis in EU-Belarus relations remain dim despite Belarus' rift with the Kremlin.


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