BRUSSELS -- The European Union and the United States have announced fresh financial and travel sanctions against the Belarusian government in response to authorities' violent crackdown on demonstrators and other alleged rights abuses in the wake of December's presidential election.
European Union foreign ministers agreed to impose visa bans and freeze the assets of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other top-ranking Belarusian officials during a meeting in Brussels on January 31.
In total, 158 people are prohibited from entering the EU, a group that includes individuals who were targeted in previous sanctions as well as many new additions to the list. Lukashenka's two sons, Viktor and Dmitry, are among those named, as is the Belarusian defense minister, Yury Zhadobin.
The EU foreign ministers indicated that more names might be added, depending on Minsk's future behavior.
The new sanctions follow condemnation from the West of the Belarusian authorities' brutal response to protests that followed the disputed December 19 presidential election. More than 600 people were arrested during a mass rally in Minsk, including seven of nine presidential candidates running against Lukashenka, who has held a 16-year grip on power.
Official results said the man described as "Europe's last dictator" won by nearly 80 percent of the vote, amid allegations of widespread fraud.The View From Brussels
One top official who remains free to travel into the Schengen zone is Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau.
According to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, the exception allows the EU to maintain some channels of communication with the Lukashenka government.
"The foreign minister, Syarhey Martynau, is not on the list because the EU, just like Poland, doesn't want to be engaged in politics of isolation," he said.
The EU's previous travel ban, imposed after Belarus's widely criticized presidential election in 2006, included 41 people. It was lifted two years later in an attempt to nudge the regime to pursue democratic reforms.
The new sanctions were announced despite Minsk's decision over the weekend to release a new group of detainees, including former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, who was severely beaten during the December protests, and prominent journalist Irina Khalip, the wife of former candidate Andrey Sannikau, who remains in jail. Those released remain under house arrest.
Some analysts read the move as a last-minute attempt by the Lukashenka government to appease the West before sanctions were imposed.
EU foreign ministers also discussed the possibility of other economic sanctions, including a possible ban on trade with Belarusian companies.
"The [EU] Commission will monitor the situation after some time and if the situation becomes worse, [additional] economic sanctions are not excluded," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audonius Azubalis told RFE/RL.
There was reportedly no discussion, however, about suspending Minsk's participation in the Eastern Partnership -- the EU's cooperation program with a group of former Soviet republics -- or on freezing loans to Belarus via the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The European Parliament had adopted a resolution calling for such measures two weeks ago.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Minsk after the disputed presidential election on December 19.
In the same resolution, foreign ministers demanded an "immediate release of those detained on political grounds following the elections on 19 December." The document also urges Belarus to "respect the rights of detainees and their families, paying particular attention to detainees' children, and the right to legal representation."
In a separate line in the resolution, the EU regrets Belarus's decision to close the Minsk offices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and called for "an urgent reversal of this decision by the Belarusian authorities."
The foreign ministers also agreed on more support for Belarusian civil society and discussed possible steps to make it easier for ordinary Belarusian citizens to obtain visas to the EU. Several countries are expected to follow the suit of Poland to scrap visas fees or at least lower the price.
"The visa will be there for quite some time but the high cost of visa will, I hope, be reduced by quite a number of countries," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
Belarusian citizens currently pay 65 euros for a visa to the Schengen zone, compared to 35 euros for Russians and Ukrainian citizens. EU justice ministers are likely to put the issue of visa liberalization on their agenda when they meet later in February. U.S. Sanctions
Just hours after the EU made its announcement, the U.S. State Department confirmed its own plans to strengthen existing sanctions against Minsk.
Under the new restrictions, U.S. companies and individuals are banned from doing business with two subsidiaries of the Belarusian state oil and chemical conglomerate Belneftekhim.
The company is key to Lukashenka's fiscal control of the country. The U.S. assets of the subsidiaries, Lakokraska and Polotsk Steklovolokno, had been frozen under sanctions imposed in 2007, but that restriction was suspended the following year.
According to an official press release, the United States is also "significantly expanding" the list of Belarusian officials prohibited from traveling into the country. More details were not immediately available.
U.S. sanctions against Belarus were originally imposed by President George W. Bush and, much like the earlier EU sanctions, came in the wake of Lukashenka's questionable claim of victory in the 2006 presidential elections.
Those measures froze the property and financial assets in the United States of senior Belarusian government officials, including Lukashenka, and U.S. companies and individuals were barred from engaging in transactions with the targeted persons.
The United States also announced that it is "working to impose financial sanctions against additional Belarusian individuals and/or entities" in response to their "participation in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions, or responsibility for human rights abuses related to political repression."
Along with taking punitive measures against Minsk, the United States will expand by "at least 30 percent" its financial assistance this year to civil society in the country.
Last year, the United States appropriated some $11 million for this function, meant to support independent media and "democratic political parties, including for activities which increase Belarusians' contact with open societies."
Representatives from the United States and Ukraine, as well as several EU foreign ministers and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, will travel to Warsaw on February 2 for the "Solidarity With Belarus" donors conference, aimed at raising funds to support Belarusian civil society.
Several countries, including Sweden and Denmark, have already indicated that they will pledge money to support various Belarusian NGOs, and the European Commission has said it will guarantee three more years of funding for the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The university has already received students who were expelled from Belarusian universities after participating in the postelection protest.with Richard Solash in Washington WATCH -- Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu is greeted upon his release to house arrest in Minsk: