21st Jul 2019

Question mark over EU policy after Belarus election violence

Worse than expected violence on the streets of Minsk following presidential elections on Sunday (19 December) has placed a question mark over the EU's new policy of engagement with Belarus.

The EU in October again suspended a travel ban on President Aleksander Luksahenko and 35 top officials originally imposed after a post-election crackdown in 2006 in the hope that better relations would pull the administration closer to EU standards and interests.

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A stream of EU VIPs have also travelled to the region in recent months, dangling the prospect of up to €3 billion in aid if the election goes well.

Mr Lukashenko on Sunday night responded by sending riot police to attack a huge crowd of between 20,000 and 40,000 protesters which had gathered in the capital's Independence Square to call for him to step down or at the least to hold a second round in the vote.

Sixty-four-year-old opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev was knocked unconscious in the street by masked men, taken to hospital and then abducted from his hospital bed by plain clothes officers who locked his wife in an adjoining room, wrapped him in a blanket and carried him away. His whereabouts were unknown on Monday morning.

Another candidate, Vital Rymasheuski, was also coshed by police. Andrej Sannikau, Mikola Statkiewicz and Rygor Kastusiou, also presidential candidates, were caught up in street clashes and detained by police, along with journalists from leading Belarusian, Polish, Russian and US media.

The riot police swooped in en masse when members of the crowd smashed windows and tried to force the doors of government buildings next to Independence Square in actions blamed on government-hired agent provocateurs by seasoned observers present at the scene, such as Polish Gazeta Wyborcza correspondent Andrzej Poczobut.

Another demonstration has been called for 6pm local time on Monday.

The fresh protest will come after OSCE election monitors give their verdict on the vote a few hours earlier. The OSCE, a Vienna-based pro-democracy body, has yet to recognise any Lukashenko election as free and fair and has already noted abuses in its pre-election-night interim reports.

The first EU politician to react so far was EU parliament chief Jerzy Buzek, a Pole, who said in a statement emailed to press at 10pm on Sunday: "This cowardly attack on a defenceless candidate [Mr Neklyayev] for President of Belarus is outrageous and disgraceful. I am shocked ... This type of behaviour is unacceptable for the international community."

EU ambassadors meeting in the Political and Security Committee in Brussels on Tuesday are likely to discuss the implications of the events for EU policy.

The official election result was announced in the small hours of Monday by Lidiya Yermoshina, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, who said Mr Lukashenko won by 79.67 percent on a 90 percent turnout and that the closest opposition candidate got less than 3 percent.

Ms Yermoshina is one of the five people who continue to face the 2006-election-linked EU travel ban along with a handful of officials implicated in the murder of dissidents.

For his part, Mr Lukashenko joked on TV while casting his vote that he now has to go and fiddle 15kg worth of ballot papers. "After that I'm going skiing," he said. "There will be no dialogue with bandits and saboteurs," he added on the protesters.

A leaked US cable from 2005 published on Saturday by WikiLeaks questioned his mental health.

The president during a press conference gave "bizarre answers" and behaved in a "clearly disturbed way," senior US diplomat George Krol commented at the time. "A defiant Lukashenko intends to stay in power indefinitely and sees no reason to change his course."

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