22nd Oct 2020

US and EU to impose joint sanctions unless Belarus frees prisoners

A travel ban on Belarusian top officials is likely to be enforced both by the US and the EU unless President Alexander Lukashenko quickly frees the political prisoners rounded up after elections last month, a senior US official stopping in Brussels on his way to Minsk has said.

"Both the EU and ourselves want to keep our postures on Belarus harmonised. But we're not going to make announcements on the same day," Thomas Melia, a diplomat working on democracy and human rights issues in the US State Department told Brussels-based journalists at a meeting on Wednesday (19 January).

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Mr Melia made a pit-stop in the EU capital and liaised with senior officials in the newly-created European External Action Service before his visit to Kiev and Minsk later this week, in what he described a "regular exercise" of US and EU officials co-ordinating their positions in respect to democracy issues in post-Communist countries.

"Definitely one of the things we are looking at is a travel ban on officials in the Belarus government - technically what steps are going to be taken in that direction will be decided in the next few days," he said.

While avoiding the term "ultimatum", he said his message to Belarusian officials will be that they still have time to avoid sanctions if they release the "scores of people still in detention, at a minimum."

"The door is not closed yet, but it is closing. Decisions will be taken in Washington and Brussels in the next couple of weeks," Mr Melia noted.

On the subject of whether Belarus should be excluded from the Eastern Partnership, the EU's basket of projects for ex-Soviet neighbours, he said this would be "entirely a European decision", with Washington set to "respect" whatever choice the EU makes.

"The government of Belarus seems to be inviting its own isolation with its actions of last month," he added.

EU foreign ministers are to decide on the visa ban on 31 January, with France, Germany, Sweden and the UK among a large majority that favours the move. Poland has already imposed sanctions unilaterally, with its list believed to include the Belarusian leader and over 100 members of his nomenklatura.

Ukraine backsliding

Mr Melia, who has worked in academia and in human rights bodies for over 25 years, pointed out that democracy is on the wane in both Belarus and Ukraine according to indices by the Economist Intelligence Unit and Freedom House.

Heading to Kiev on Thursday and Friday, Mr Melia is to discuss planned changes in the country's electoral code and to express concerns over the "selective prosecution of opposition politicians."

He labelled as a "bad habit" the practice of targeting former government officials once their political rivals come to power. "Ukraine's success as a country depends on the independence of the judiciary," he said.

US still engaged

Some eastern European leaders are worried that the Obama administration is more interested in China, the Middle East and the state of the US economy than old Cold War-type problems.

Mr Melia said the White House remains engaged in the region, however.

"We have a different approach than the previous administration, as our guiding principle in dealing with other governments is that of 'principled engagement', that means deal with all parts of society and look for ways to support those who share our values, whether they are in government or in the civil society," he said.

The US official noted that President Obama has not cut any US pro-democracy projects in the region, despite taking austerity measures elsewhere.

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