Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

EU and US tighten screw on Lukashenko

  • Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
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The EU has blacklisted travel firms and Belarusian officials who helped create the migrant crisis with Poland and Lithuania.

The US also dialled up economic pain on Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, but one dissident warned the sanctions would only make him "angrier".

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  • Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (l) spoke of "nightmare" scenarios (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU designated Belavia, Belarus' flagship airline, saying: "Migrants wishing to cross the Union's external border have been flying to Minsk on board flights operated by Belavia from a number of Middle Eastern countries, in particular Lebanon, UAE, and Turkey".

It blacklisted Syria's Cham Wings for similar reasons.

It also cited VIP Grub, an Istanbul-based travel agency, in a warning shot to Turkey, after Turkish Airlines played a role in migrant flights.

The EU ban included four Belarusian travel-industry firms, and officials who were "forcing migrants to illegally cross the border between Belarus and Union member states".

It named a judge who jailed Maria Kolesnikova, one of Belarus more than 850 political prisoners, in a reminder of Lukashenko's ongoing domestic violence.

And it banned two Belarusian chemical firms and a tyre-making company for supporting the "regime".

Thursday's (2 December) package was the fifth time the EU struck Lukashenko since his crackdown on pro-democracy protesters last summer.

Past measures targeted a handful of pro-Lukashenko oligarchs, such as Russian born Mikhail Gutseriev, and exports of potash, a fertiliser component.

But the EU has, so far, left other big fish off the hook.

The US, the same day, blacklisted 32 individuals and entities who "enabled the [Belarusian] regime's migrant smuggling into the European Union ... [and] have taken part in the ongoing crackdown on human rights".

It imposed restrictions on Belarusian sovereign debt.

And it tightened the screw on potash trading.

Canada and the UK joined the Western front, with the UK designating Belaruskali, a potash producer.

"Those, in Belarus ... who facilitate illegal crossing of the EU's external borders should know this comes at a substantial cost," Canada, the EU, UK, and US said in a statement.

"We will take harsh, asymmetrical but adequate measures," the Belarusian foreign ministry said.

For Natalia Koliada, a Belarusian émigré living in London, the EU sanctions were: "not strong enough to stop him [Lukashenko]".

"It's enough to make him angrier, but doesn't kill him politically," she said.

But another Belarusian activist, who asked not to be named, welcomed the US action.

"For the first time in history, the US has introduced really effective sanctions," he said.

Cutting off Lukashenko's own income will mean an "increased [financial] price" for Russia to prop him up in power, the activist noted.

And Moscow was "afraid of [potential EU and US] sanctions against Aeroflot," he added, referring to Russia's top airline, which was also accused of flying migrants.

Lukashenko has twice threatened to block Russian gas exports to the EU if Europe tried to "strangle" him.

But the Kremlin told him not to do it.

The Belarus border crisis has cost over a dozen refugees' lives, including children.

Russian 'nightmare'

Meanwhile, Russia has parked an invasion force on Ukraine's border and warned the West of conflict, in the worst spike in tension in the region for years.

Its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, accused the US of smuggling in missiles under Russia's nose in a speech in Stockholm on Thursday.

"American medium-range missiles are about to appear in Europe, bringing back the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation," he said.

Lavrov also made a veiled threat to invade Ukraine the way Russia invaded Georgia 13 years ago.

"The decision of the Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008 that 'Georgia and Ukraine will become Nato members' is a mine at the very foundation of the European security structure," he said.

"Once, in August 2008, it already 'exploded'," Lavrov said.

Borrell met Lavrov

The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, held a "short meeting" with Lavrov in the margins of Thursday's Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe event in Sweden, Borrell's spokesman said in Brussels.

Borrell urged Russia to refrain from Ukraine "aggression", the EU spokesman said.

EU foreign ministers would discuss sanctions on Russia in the event of an invasion at their meeting on 13 December, the spokesman added.

"We will stand up for Ukraine," he said.

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