EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU may hit companies that feed the Belarusian regime with "targeted sanctions" in future, on top of a travel ban imposed on President Aleksander Lukashenko and 157 officials, Poland has said.
Speaking to press in Brussels after a foreign ministers' meeting on Monday (31 January), Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski said: "We gave the high representative [EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton] ... the legal possibility to use narrowly-targeted but effective sanctions against people, institutions and Belarusian companies that either allow themselves to be used for repression or which give backing to the regime."
Sikorski (l): 'It's sometimes difficult to understand the thought process of President Lukashenko' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)
The minister noted that "there was no consensus" among EU countries to impose blanket economic sanctions, despite a Polish-Swedish initiative to hit Minsk as hard as possible.
The terms of Ms Ashton's mandate to strike at selected Belarusian firms is unclear. The formal conclusions of Monday's meeting said: "The Council will regularly re-examine the situation in Belarus and stands ready to consider further targeted measures in all areas of co-operation as appropriate."
Ms Ashton herself said: "We will revisit and come back to this issue if we don't see the release of these people [political prisoners]."
EU diplomatic sources earlier told this website that two Belarusian companies in the firing line are petroleum products company Belneftekhim and fertiliser firm Belaruskalii, which depend on EU clients and which make up a large part of Belarus' state budget.
The ministers for the meantime agreed on a travel ban on 158 Belarusian officials, on boosting support for NGOs and on relaxing visa requirements for ordinary Belarusians. EUobserver understands the visa ban list covers Mr Lukashenko's two adult sons. But details are to come out later in the week.
Minsk on the eve of the EU decision released seven prisoners into house arrest in an apparent bid to soften the EU blow. Brussels was unimpressed, however. "I deplore the conditions in which they were released and that some of them were placed under house arrest with KGB agents monitoring their every move," EU parliament head Jerzy Buzek said.
Recalling the events of 19 December, when the Belarusian leader suddenly binned two years of EU relations-building with a brutal crackdown on demonstrators, Mr Sikorski said: "It's sometimes difficult to understand the thought process of President Lukashenko."
Asked if he or any EU leaders had tried to call the Belarusian president on the night to get him to stop the beatings, he added: "I don't know how you imagine that might have happened. Events were moving so quickly."
For its part, the Belarusian foreign ministry emailed round a reaction to the EU decision. "It is particularly unacceptable that the EU responds in an absolutely incomparable way to the by far tougher actions by the governments of certain other countries in Europe," it said, without naming the countries it had in mind.