EU eyes sanctions after tainted Minsk poll

By Joshua Chaffin in Brussels and Jan Cienski in Warsaw

The European Union is preparing sanctions against Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus president, and other members of his government following national elections riddled with fraud and violence.

The measures are likely to include the renewal of a travel ban against Mr Lukashenko that was suspended in 2008, according to European diplomats. Bank account and asset freezes were also possible, they said.

Diplomats are set to discuss the matter at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, ahead of a planned visit to the city on Wednesday by Sergei Martynov, Belarus' foreign minister. Sanctions could be formalised at a meeting of European foreign ministers on January 31.

Several member states have been demanding tough action against Mr Lukashenko, including Poland, Sweden, the UK and Germany, amid outrage over last month's elections and the government's subsequent crackdown against opposition figures. Belarusian opposition figures are also prodding the EU to respond.

While European officials say broad support has built for sanctions, some member states are urging more patience. One is Italy, whose premier, Silvio Berlusconi , paid a rare visit to Minsk in 2009. The Italian defence contractor, Finmeccanica, has also been probing business opportunities in Belarus.

Lithuania is also said to be hesitant. The country is apparently wary of EU measures pre-empting efforts to address the situation through the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which it is currently chairing.

The EU has long struggled to calibrate its policy toward an authoritarian government whose leader has been dubbed Europe's last dictator. The bloc imposed sanctions against Belarus in 2006 but then suspended them in 2008 following Russia's invasion of Georgia.

EU policymakers were eager to cement closer ties with the former Soviet republics and optimistic that Mr Lukashenko was poised to embrace democratic reforms.

Following December's election, Catherine Ashton, Europe's foreign policy chief, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, issued a joint statement condemning the government, and demanding the release of jailed opposition figures.

As they contemplate tougher measures, European officials are grappling with a familiar dilemma: how to ratchet up pressure against Mr Lukashenko without punishing ordinary citizens.

A report prepared by EU diplomats in Minsk recommends extending the travel ban beyond the president to officials involved in rigging the election and organising the crackdown. It also said the EU should consider opposing future International Monetary Fund loans to Belarus.

Yet diplomats urged an easing of visa rules for ordinary Belarusian citizens, and waiving visa fees for students and journalists. "We do not want the people to pay the price," one EU official said.

Not content to wait for Brussels, Poland has already cancelled a ?20 visa fee for Belarusians. The country also funds Belsat, a Warsaw-based independent news channel broadcasting in Belarusian and Russian.

Poland's staunch support for the Belarusian opposition is driven by a desire to ensure that Belarus not become a Russian satellite state, and out of concern for the 500,000-strong Polish minority living there.

"We hope that everyone will agree to decisive steps against the Belarusian authorities in light of the unprecedented wave of repression," said Marcin Bosacki, a foreign ministry spokesman, noting that Warsaw's minimum requirement was the resumption of a visa ban on 41 senior Belarusian officials.


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