BRUSSELS -- The European Union has once again expanded asset freezes and travel bans on Belarusians linked to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime.
The 27 EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg also for the first time decided to take measures against Belarusian companies.
The companies are arms maker Beltechexport, telecoms provider BT Telecommunications, and gambling company Sport-Pari, which all belong to the country’s second-richest man and economic adviser to Lukashenka, Vladimir Peftiev.
Four people, including Peftiev, were added to the blacklist of Belarusian individuals targeted by the EU over Minsk's crackdown on government opponents.
An arms embargo on Belarus and on "materials that might be used for internal repression" was also included in the measures.
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 that last month alone saw three former presidential candidates jailed over their role in postelection protests.
Something Must Be Done
There has been a wide consensus among EU member states that something has to be done to address the situation in Belarus but 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. The discussions were so heated that the EU ambassadors failed to agree on the issue in their morning meeting, leaving it to the foreign ministers to thrash out a deal later in the day.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb
Earlier, Finnish European Affairs Minister Alexander Stubb had 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 also adopted 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.
In the text, the council expresses its deep concern at the deteriorating human rights, democracy, and rule-of-law situation in the country and repeats its “calls for the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners."
The text also deplores the “continuing deterioration of media freedom in Belarus, including the lawsuits filed by the Ministry of Information to close two of Belarus’s largest independent newspapers, "Nasha Niva" and "Narodnaya Volya," and the canceled license of radio station Autoradio.
The trial of the Polish "Gazeta Wyborcza" journalist Andrzej Poczobut, accused of insulting Lukashenka, was also criticized.
The June 20 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 did not feature in today's discussion, with a Brussels diplomat pointing out that the fund usually doesn’t set strict political conditions.
The EU did, however, review the role played by the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in Belarus.
The EIB’s operations to Belarus should only proceed “if and when the EU is able to give a sufficiently positive assessment of the human rights and rule of law situation.” The ministers also welcomed the EBRD’s country review in which it stated there will be a “recalibrating of EBRD assistance away from the Belarusian central authorities in favor of nonstate and local actors implementing projects in areas which benefit the population at large.”
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.
The ministers said that they expect “rapid progress” in the ongoing negotiations on a trade agreement with Ukraine, which is expected to be concluded before the end of the year.
There were also hopes to launch talks on visa facilitation agreements "with Belarus, for the benefit of the population at large, as well as with Armenia and Azerbaijan.”