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25th Jun 2022

EU welcomes back Belarus autocrat

EU foreign ministers on Monday (13 October) lifted a visa ban on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Uzbekistan president-in-waiting Rustam Inoyatov. But EU diplomats say Mr Lukashenko is not off the hook for crimes committed under his watch.

The Belarus move sees an EU travel ban suspended for six months on the country's authoritarian leader and 35 of his officials. Travel restrictions were upheld on five members of the Belarus nomenklatura - Viktor Sheyman, Yury Sivakov, Dmitri Pavlichenko, Vladimir Naurov and Lydia Yermoshyna - however.

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The four men are deemed to be "implicated in the disappearances between 1999 and 2000" of four opposition figures, with Mr Naurov the only one still in office as Belarus current interior minister. Ms Yermoshyna, the current head of the electoral commission, was singled out for helping rig past votes.

The full travel ban will be automatically re-imposed in April 2009 unless a consensus of all 27 EU states decides otherwise. The re-imposition will be conditional on Belarus reforms in the areas of "electoral law ... freedom of expression and press, as well as freedom of assembly and political association" the EU statement said.

Aside from the travel restrictions, the EU ministers upheld a - largely symbolic - foreign asset freeze on all 41 Belarusian names on the list.

EU trade sanctions that see Belarus excluded from the EU's low-tariff "GSP" trade club will also remain in force as they are governed by a different legal process, involving approval by the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation.

The foreign ministers did not discuss the prospect of a top-level EU meeting with President Lukashenko in the near future. Some delegations also underlined that the visa decision is not a reward for Belarusian reforms but a political gambit to pull the country away from the Russian sphere of influence.

"He [Mr Lukashenko] is an autocrat. There's no democracy in Belarus, no civil rights. But he's the leader of the country and if we want to bring Belarus closer to the EU, we have to talk to him. That's the political reality," a Lithuanian diplomat said.

A handful of EU states even envisaged one day making Mr Lukashenko answerable for the opposition activists who disappeared while he was in office.

"No one says he is innocent. Leaders are responsible for what happens while they are in power and they are eventually punished for this. It's the same for Lukashenko," one EU diplomat said. "If the situation stabilises, Lukashenko will not avoid this."

Uzbek security chief welcomed

In a separate move at the Luxembourg meeting, EU foreign ministers permanently scrapped a visa ban on eight Uzbek officials and ex-officials, including security chief Rustam Inoyatov, tipped to one day take over from the 70-year-old President Islam Karimov.

The EU decision welcomed "progress" in human rights reforms, such as giving the Red Cross access to jails and holding a seminar on media freedom in Tashkent on 2 October.

But the text voiced "serious concern" over remaining political prisoners, with the EU upholding an arms trade ban on the country for another 12 months, and threatening fresh restrictions in future if abuses worsen.

"A great deal needs to be done," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said. "An independent journalist, Mr Solizhon Abdurakhmanov, has just been sentenced to 10 years behind bars. We are following developments very carefully."

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