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17th Aug 2019

Lukashenko still welcome in new EU sanctions package

Belarus' autocratic ruler Aleskander Lukashaneko and 35 of his current and former officials will continue to be able to travel to the EU under a new sanctions package. But five of the most notorious people in the nomenklatura will remain persona non grata.

EU diplomats agreed the measures and an accompanying communique in Brussels on Thursday (21 October), with foreign ministers to rubber-stamp the deal at a meeting in Luxembourg on Monday.

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The communique says that: "The Council reiterates the importance of the EU's critical engagement policy toward Belarus and the continuation of high-level EU-Belarus political dialogue as ways of building mutual understanding and creating opportunities to address issues of concern."

It "deeply regrets" the "lack of progress" in areas such as rule of law, human rights, free speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

On the upcoming presidential elections in December, it "calls on Belarus authorities that the elections are [in conformity] with international norms and standards" and "welcomes" Minsk's invitation of Western monitors.

Thursday's discussion on the phrase "critical engagement" saw some EU diplomats interpret the words as meaning that the Union is critical in a negative sense of the political situation in the country. Others saw it as meaning that EU-Belarus relations are at critical stage because the elections are a make-or-break opportunity to upgrade ties.

The European Commission has drafted a so-called Joint Interim Plan (JIP) for Belarus, a 20-or-so-page-long checklist of reforms to be made over the next three to five years. The JIP could be put in play after the elections if there are no gross violations, such as mass jailings or beatings, and if Belarus agrees.

The move would be a political watershed and would put Minsk on an almost equal footing in terms of EU relations with EU-friendly post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

In technical terms, the EU is to extend its existing travel ban on all 41 names on its list until 31 October 2011. The ban will be suspended on 36 people but kept in force on the group-of-five.

The sanctions were imposed in the wake of election-rigging and street violence during the previous presidential poll in 2006.

Some of the measures have in the past five years lost all but their symbolic force, while others remain significant.

Out of the five still-banned names, Yury Podobed (former chief of the Minsk riot police) and Yury Sivakov (former interior minister) have lost their posts and fallen out of favour. Vladimir Naumov (former interior minister) has lost his post but is said to be close to President Lukashenko. Viktor Sheiman (former prosecutor general) is now a presidential aide and is in charge of Belarus-Venezuela relations, recently brokering a 200-year-long oil supply contract. Lidiya Yermoshina is still head of the Central Election Commission.

Out of the group-of-36, the majority are no longer near the centre of power. One key figure, Stepan Sukhorenko, the former head of secret police, has been shoved aside to become ambassador to Armenia. A handful of others, including Nikolai Lozovik (secretary of the Central Election Commission), Natalya Petkevich (deputy head of the Presidential Administration) and Aleksandr Zimovsky (head of state TV and radio) are said to be active and influential.

The rationale in splitting the list in two is to uphold EU foreign policy values while opening the door to closer ties. But the split makes little sense in moral terms.

EU diplomats on the basis of a 2004 Council of Europe report believe that Mr Sheiman, a former Soviet paratrooper, personally has "blood on his hands" in the cases of four dissidents who disappeared between 1999 and 2004.

The same diplomats admit that the alleged murders could not have been carried out without Mr Lukashenko's permission, but say the EU has no one else in Minsk with which to talk about reform. Dmitry Pavlichenko, a former security officer in the interior ministry, who was also criminalised in the Council of Europe probe, is also on the group-of-36 sanction waiver list.

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