Monday

29th May 2017

Lukashenko to go back on EU visa ban list

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has said that Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenko will be put back on an EU visa ban list along with dozens of officials responsible for post-election beatings and arrests.

Speaking to EUobserver by phone on Monday (3 January) Mr Bildt said: "We have to follow the logic of our previous policies. The last time, when we no longer had political prisoners, we took positive steps. Now we have many more prisoners and those who took part in the actions which took place and those who collaborated with them will inevitably come back on the list."

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  • Lukashenka (far left) at a summit of post-Soviet countries in Moscow: the Belarusian leader is the only one on the EU's persona non grata list (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Asked specifically if Mr Lukashenko will be among the people to face a new ban, he answered: "I find it highly likely that he was involved in the actions which took place."

The EU imposed visa sanctions on Mr Lukashenko and 40 officials in the wake of a similar but less harsh post-election crackdown in 2006. The bloc suspended the ban for 36 of the names in 2008 following the release of high-level political prisoners in a move which later saw the Belarusian leader visit Italy.

EU embassies in Minsk are currently preparing a new list which will be forwarded to a meeting of the member states' Political and Security Committee (PSC) in Brussels on Friday. One EU diplomatic source said the draft list already numbers over 100 people.

Some EU countries, such as the Czech Republic, are keen to move quickly by calling a snap EU foreign ministers' meeting next week to put the new list into play. But Germany and Sweden prefer to wait until a scheduled EU ministerial on 31 January.

Belarus on Monday saw the temporary release from detention of opposition presidential candidate Vital Rymashevski. Mr Rymashevski and 26 others who are still being held face charges of organising riots which could see them put in prison for 15 years or more.

Sweden's Mr Bildt said the EU response will not be limited to visas. "Mass economic aid is clearly off the table for at least the time being," he added, in reference to a pre-election EU offer of €3 billion in economic assistance over the next three years.

Other moves under consideration include: cutting all EU projects linked to Belarusian authorities; excluding Belarus from meetings under the EU's Eastern Partnership policy, including an EU summit with post-Soviet countries in Budapest in May; expanding assistance to Belarusian civil society, such as funding for the European Humanities University in Vilnius, a school for Belarusian exiles; urging EU countries to unilaterally drop visa fees for young Belarusians, students, teachers and NGO staff.

Experts have in the past also recommended targeted sanctions against Belarusian arms firms, such as Beltekhexport and Belvneshpromservice, income from which is said to go to the nomenklatura's private bank accounts.

The Union is unlikely to go as far as non-recognition of the election result despite indications that Mr Lukashenko failed to get enough votes to win in the first round, however.

Some EU countries are wary of pushing Belarus into total isolation for fear of increasing the Kremlin's influence in Minsk. An EU diplomat noted that Mr Lukashenko is likely to stay around for a while yet since the 20,000-or-so people who came out on the streets last month represented the country's intellectual elite rather than a nationwide anti-Lukashenko movement.

For his part, Mr Bildt believes that Mr Lukashenko's post-election reaction was a psychological one linked to the "humiliation" of the first round defeat rather than a strategic decision.

"I don't think he has very much influence or support in Moscow either. I think he has turned his back on everybody," the Swedish minister, a senior figure in EU policy-making on post-Soviet countries, said. "He has turned his back definitively on the West."

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