EU foreign ministers are expected today to impose sanctions on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime in response to what the bloc regards as a flawed presidential election last month that was followed by a violent crackdown on antigovernment protesters.
BRUSSELS -- European Union foreign affairs ministers are expected to impose visa sanctions on top-ranking Belarusian officials at a meeting that starts in Brussels today.
The expected move comes in response to the violent crackdown on demonstrators protesting the disputed December 19 presidential election that returned Alyaksandr Lukashenka to power.
Member states have for several weeks been locked in discussions about which individuals and how many of them should be subjected to the sanctions.
But in the run-up to today's meeting, the EU said the travel ban would be much wider than the one taken following Minsk's widely criticized election in 2006.
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL that the number of top Belarusian officials set to receive a travel ban will be "a considerable increase on the number we previously had."
The apparent "grassroots" movement proposal was voted by the country's one-party ruled parliament. It would allow the current president (in power since 1991) to extend his presidency to 2010. The Constitutional Council rules the law unconstitutional, but the president can still have the last word.
The EU imposed visa bans on Lukashenka and some 40 other officials in 2006 but lifted them two years later in a bid to push Minsk towards democratization.
One EU diplomat told RFE/RL that "more or less 150 individuals" would be on the new list, including both people who previously were subjected to sanctions and new ones involved in the recent violence.
The individuals on the list will also have their assets frozen by the EU in a move that is likely to be replicated by United States. Ashton has been in regular contact with the U.S. State Department and there have been calls on both sides to coordinate efforts.
Hundreds of people, including several presidential candidates, were jailed in the December crackdown on protests that followed what the EU and international observers regard as a flawed election.
On January 29, the latest group of detainees was released, including former candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu and prominent journalist Irina Khalip, the wife of candidate Andrei Sannikau, who remains in jail. Those who were released remain under house arrest.
The foreign ministers during the day will also adopt conclusions indicating the EU's stance on the latest events in Belarus.
Deeper Relations With Ordinary Folks
Kocijancic said she believed that foreign ministers will focus their discussions today on how to deepen relations with the general public in Belarus. "There will be a review of how we can engage civil society and [at] the same time ensure that the support is delivered," she said.
A group of countries, led by Poland and Sweden, has in recent weeks called for a stronger final text. RFE/RL spoke with diplomats who suggested they would like to see Ashton "push for more creative ways" of helping ordinary Belarusians, a hint that visa facilitation might be included in the text.
Another possible scenario is that foreign ministers will send a "political signal" to EU justice ministers to discuss visa liberalization for ordinary Belarusians at their next meeting in February.
Belarusians currently pay around 65 euros for a visa to Europe's Schengen zone, compared to 35 euros for Russian and Ukrainian citizens. Poland and Lithuania have already scrapped visa fees for Belarusians unilaterally, and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorksi might take the opportunity to call for other countries to follow suit.
The conclusions will also demand a release of all political prisoners as well as calling for support for their families.
They will also include a reference to "the mistake" of shutting down the Minsk office of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and a recommendation that it should be reopened.
As Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, who's this year's OSCE chairman-in-office, put it to RFE/RL today, "We need to restore a meaningful OSCE presence in Minsk."
Solidarity With Belarus
The foreign ministers are also likely to voice their support for the "Solidarity With Belarus" donors' conference scheduled for Warsaw on February 2.
It has not yet been decided if foreign ministers will attend, but all major EU member states will be present, as will representatives from Ukraine. The EU Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, has confirmed he will travel to Warsaw.
It is not yet clear what sort of sums the conference will generate but there will be discussion about how to secure funding for the European Humanities University (EHU) based in Vilnius, Lithuania. The university has already received students expelled from Belarusian universities after participating in the post-election protest.
Several representatives from civil society are also holding a meeting in Vilnius on February 3-4 to discuss how to assist NGOs in Belarus.
There is, however, no mention of suspending Minsk's participation in the Eastern Partnership -- the EU's cooperation program with a group of former Soviet republics -- or of freezing loans to Belarus via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Investment Bank (EIB).
The European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for such measures last week.