The European Union should ratchet up economic and political pressure on Belarus to help win the freedom of candidates and protesters jailed after last month's flawed presidential election, opposition leaders said.
"Money that Germany and others pay Belarus for oil products goes for clubs that are beating Belarusian women and children," said Eva Neklyaeva, daughter of presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev, who was beaten before polls closed for the Dec. 19 election and then dragged from his hospital bed and put into a KGB prison.
More than 700 people, including seven of nine opposition presidential candidates, were arrested after a rally in Minsk following the election, opposition leaders told reporters in Berlin today. The protests took place after Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, was declared the winner with 79.7 percent of the vote.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the election wasn't free, fair or transparent and that the process was "marred" by the arrests. The U.S. condemned the crackdown and said it "cannot accept as legitimate" the official election results.
Lukashenko, 56, has ruled Belarus since 1994 under a regime dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship" by the administration of President George W. Bush.
Neklyaeva called on the EU to ensure that human rights and not realpolitik was the basis of its Belarus policy and said the bloc should exert "political and economic pressure." She joined other opposition leaders in urging Europe to cut off dialogue with the Belarus government.
"As with terrorists, there can be no negotiations with the government until all the prisoners have been released," said Stanislav Shushkevich, a former head of Belarus's parliament.
EU leaders are preparing sanctions against Lukashenko and members of his government, the Financial Times reported today, citing unidentified diplomats. The measures may be announced at a Jan. 31 meeting of the 27-nation bloc's foreign ministers, the newspaper said.
Belarus, an ex-Soviet republic of 10 million that borders Russia and three EU nations, transports about 20 percent of OAO Gazprom's Europe-bound natural gas. Gazprom, Russia's state-run export monopoly, supplies about 25 percent of Europe's gas needs.
Four opposition candidates still remain in prison, said Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which co-hosted the press conference.
A declaration signed on Jan. 9 by 17 opposition leaders said "there is sufficient evidence that much less than half of the citizens who participated in the election voted for Lukashenko" and that therefore "Lukashenko cannot be considered the elected president of Belarus." The declaration calls for a new election.
Andrei Sannikov, one of the detained opposition candidates, had urged the EU to take a harder line with Lukashenko before the vote.
Those politicians in the EU who think they can "Europeanize" Lukashenko are pushing an "extremely stupid and extremely dangerous" policy, Sannikov said in an Oct. 27 interview.
"Europe has tried every kind of approach toward Lukashenko: carrots, sticks, promises, conditions, removal of conditions, dialogue, appeasement, strong language, soft language," said Sannikov. "You cannot change Lukashenko; he's about power."
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