21.06.2011 | Rikard Jozwiak

EU Tightens Belarus Sanctions



European Union diplomats say EU foreign ministers today extended economic sanctions against Belarus, imposing asset freezes on three firms with links to the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

The diplomats -- quoted by Western news agencies -- said three Belarusian businessmen close to Lukashenka were also added to a list of people affected by the EU sanctions.

The EU already has already slapped restrictive measures on close to 190 individuals. The list has been updated on numerous occasions throughout 2011 as a direct response to Minsk’s postelection crackdown on government opponents that last month alone saw three former presidential candidates jailed over their roles in postelection protests.

Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson of the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL that Brussels remains concerned about the trials and convictions of opposition figures in the wake of Lukashenka’s disputed reelection in December.

"I expect that they will reaffirm their condemnation of these events and reiterate the call for the immediate release for all political prisoners, " Kocijancic said before today’s meeting. "They will also look into how to further increase the pressure on Belarus.”

Consensus, With Reservations

A council source had told RFE/RL that "one or several companies were under consideration" for an asset freeze. Although no names were mentioned, it is believed that the arms maker Beltechexport may be one of the targeted firms.

Although there is a wide consensus among EU member states that something has to be done, some countries -- led by Italy and Latvia -- have been reluctant to be too hard on the regime in Minsk.

Representatives from Latvia have previously voiced concerns that sanctions against Belarusian companies would hurt Latvian business in the country.

 Finnish European Affairs Minister Alexander Stubb, speaking on arrival at today’s meeting, described the balancing act, saying, "I think the key always with sanctions is to avoid targeting the people who are actually calling for change. Therefore, you try to find a way and companies are usually the best way to go about it. I am not sure that they always work 100 percent. In some cases they do, in some cases they don’t."

For the first time since January, the foreign ministers will also adopt a conclusion on Belarus. Though critics often dismiss EU council conclusions as "empty words, " the move would signal the importance the EU attaches to the issue.

Although the exact wording of the conclusion is yet to be decided, Kocijancic says the text will touch upon the need for Belarus to respect human rights and international laws.

"We expect that the foreign ministers will adopt quite strong conclusions in terms of the messages -- for example, in the field of human rights, in the field of rule of law, and also how the EU views the situation in general, " Kocijancic said.

Today’s meeting comes just weeks after Belarus asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue loan of billions of dollars to help stave off a growing financial crisis.

’Belarus Might Be Worse’

The economic woes of an EU member state, Greece, are currently uppermost in the minds of Brussels, but Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt says the crisis in Belarus merits attention.

"We are, of course, focusing on the situation in Greece; we are all worried about that, " Bildt said. "But Belarus might be even worse in terms of financial collapse."

Several members of the European Parliament have urged member states to push the IMF to only allow assistance if Belarus releases all political prisoners, but the EU has been reluctant to put pressure on the IMF.

Minsk’s IMF request is unlikely to feature in today’s discussion, according to a Brussels diplomat who pointed out that the fund usually doesn’t set strict political conditions.

The EU will, however, oversee the role played by the European Investment Bank and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development in Belarus, even if the actions of these two financial institutions in the country have been stripped down considerably.

During today’s meeting, foreign ministers will also exchange their first views of the revised European neighborhood policy that Ashton and the EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, presented last month.

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