EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The EU and US have in an unusual joint statement threatened to take action against the Belarusian regime unless it begins to release people arrested during post-election protests last weekend.
"The United States and the European Union reiterate their call for the immediate release of the presidential candidates and the over 600 demonstrators who have been taken into custody in the wake of the presidential elections in Belarus," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her US counterpart, Hilary Clinton, said in a joint communique on Thursday (23 December).
"We will be assessing the government of Belarus's actions to address the current situation and to take developments into account as we review our relations with Belarus," it added. The two ladies are said to have forged a close personal relationship over the past year.
Options on the table for the EU include: re-imposing a visa ban on President Aleksander Lukashenko and 35 of his top officials, which had been suspended in October; putting on hold plans to ease visa conditions for ordinary Belarusians; blocking EU's modest, ?5-million-a-year-or-so aid package for the country; and freezing its membership of the so-called European Partnership club, a recently-established EU policy for improving relations with post-Soviet countries.
An EU diplomatic source said the Union may be forced to act if Minsk imposes long-term prison sentences on the opposition presidential candidates currently in police custody, creating new high-profile political prisoners.
Belarus activists are especially concerned about the fate of 64-year-old opposition candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, who was severely beaten and abducted last Sunday and has not been seen since, raising concern over his physical well-being.
But many of the EU options are unattractive, as they may push the country further into isolation and improve chances for Russia to boost its influence in Minsk. Poland, a major influence on EU policy on Belarus, is wary of any knee-jerk moves by the Union.
Commentators note that the autocratic President Lukashenko was recently emboldened by Russia's decision to renew below-market-rate oil exports to Belarus in a deal worth more to the impoverished country than any EU aid package under discussion.
Negotiations on long-term Belarus-Russia energy prices are still ongoing, however, with a fire on the Belarusian section of the so-called Druzhba pipeline this week reducing Russian oil deliveries.
"Stopping the visa-facilitation process would be the worst thing we could do," the EU diplomatic contact said.