27th Jan 2021

Italy keen to protect Lukashenko from EU sanctions

Italy is continuing to play the role of Aleksander Lukashenko's biggest friend in the EU by opposing a general current among member states to punish the Belarusian hardman for post-election violence.

At a high-level meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels on Friday (7 January), Rome came out against proposals to impose an EU travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and officials involved in the beatings and arrests of opposition candidates, pro-democracy demonstrators and bystanders after presidential elections in Belarus last month.

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"They are a bit alone on that," one EU diplomatic contact said. "Their traditional argument is that these kinds of sanctions have never been effective and that it is important to keep channels open even with the bad guys."

Another EU diplomat said: "The meeting agreed that there are three priorities: to free political prisoners, to encourage civil society and to make sure the people who perhaps committed crimes get some sort of punishment. But on the question of how to do this, there is some lack of coherence."

"Italy is the most adamant [anti-sanctions EU country], but there are also others on the more cautious side ... Spain, Portugal," the source added. "Germany, Poland, Sweden and the UK are saying: 'Yes. We have tried hard to create a dialogue with Belarus. But now we have to react hard as well'."

EU diplomats will continue to chew over the sanctions question and to draw up a list of potential visa ban names at lower-level meetings in the EU capital next week. The final decision is to be made by written procedure in 10 days' time or by EU foreign ministers on 31 January. A consensus of all 27 EU capitals is required to impose punitive measures.

The Italian foreign ministry was unavailable for comment on Friday evening.

But Rome has in the past taken the same friendly line on Minsk. In October last year, Italian diplomats argued the EU should permanently lift sanctions on Mr Lukashenko instead of temporarily suspending them. In 2009, Rome was the only EU capital to roll out the red carpet for a Lukashenko visit. The same year, Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi went to Minsk. In 2006, Italy also tried to oppose punitive EU trade tariffs against Belarus put in place due to restrictions on trade unions.

Earlier this week, Hungary's foreign minister Janos Martonyi and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt both called for new EU sanctions, with Mr Bildt telling EUobserver the move is "inevitable."

Hungary's ambassador to Minsk, Ferenc Kontra, also urged Belarus to give EU diplomats access to political detainees so that they can check up on their physical well-being.

His statement was made in the name of the EU under the auspices of the Hungarian EU presidency because the European External Action Service does not yet have a fully-fledged embassy in the Belarusian capital. It has gone unheeded so far, however.

Hundreds of detainees remain unaccounted for, while fears remain for the safety of some, such as Vladimir Neklyayev - a 64-year-old opposition candidate who was beaten unconscious in the street by masked men on 19 December and then abducted from his hospital bed by plain clothes officers hours later.

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