EU visa bans to ‘pressure’ Lukashenko

Belarus officials who ordered violence and faked elections are to go on EU blacklists, foreign ministers agreed on Friday (14 August).

The visa bans and asset freezes could be in force by the end of the month or in early September, after they tasked the EU foreign service to start work on “additional listings … immediately”.

The 27 EU states also said they did “not accept the results of the election [last Sunday] as presented by the Belarus Central Election Commission”, which said Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko won by over 80 percent.

The EU offered to mediate between Lukashenko and opposition leaders.

And ministers “sent a strong signal of the EU’s support to the Belarusian population in their desire for democratic change” in a statement after Friday’s emergency video-talks.

“The brutality and detention of peaceful protesters and journalists in Belarus isn’t acceptable in the Europe of the 21st century,” German foreign minister Heiko Maas also said.

“This is why we have to increase pressure on those in power there,” he said.

The EU spoke out as thousands of people, including factory workers, held peaceful protests in Minsk and other cities on Friday evening, in ongoing defiance.

The opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who is in exile in Lithuania, also called for Lukashenko to hold round-table talks on giving up power and urged demonstrations to continue.

Minsk was calm on Saturday morning.

But the calm came after five days of police brutality, deaths, mass arrests, and torture of protesters, indicating that Lukashenko, who has ruled for almost 30 years, will not go voluntarily.

The EU lifted most of its Belarus sanctions, including on Lukashenko himself and some 170 officials, in 2016, amid Western and Russian competition for influence in his palace.

“This is an experiment,” the then Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, said at the time.

It remains to be seen if the EU now re-lists Lukashenko, but, for their part, six member states voiced political caution.

“We … need to find a careful balance between pressure against and engagement with Belarus president Lukashenko”, the foreign ministers of Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, and Denmark said in a joint letter on Friday, which was seen by the Reuters news agency.

The EU did not mention economic sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime, such as those imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine in 2014.

But the EU consensus on targeted blacklists came despite concern that Hungary, which had courted closer Belarus ties, might block the decision.

The US and EU were in talks on how to “help as best we can the Belarusian people achieve sovereignty and freedom”, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo also said, while on a visit to Warsaw on Saturday, in a show of increasingly rare transatlantic unity.

Turkey sanctions?

Meanwhile, EU ministers threatened further sanctions against Turkey over its recent naval incursion into disputed waters near Greek islands.

Turkey’s adventures, in the name of oil and gas exploration, “create a heightened risk of dangerous incidents” with Greek or other EU states’ militaries, the ministers added.

The EU has, so far, blacklisted only two Turkish businessmen in connection with similar incidents in the past.

And foreign ministers recognised the “importance” of Turkey, in a nod to its Nato membership and its role in stopping migrants from reaching Europe.

But they warned Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, all the same, that his maritime exploits were causing “antagonism and distrust” among his Western friends, in a time of already heightened tension in Europe’s eastern and southern neighbourhood.

“The serious deterioration in the relationship with Turkey is having far-reaching strategic consequences for the entire EU, well beyond the eastern Mediterranean,” the EU ministers said on Friday.

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