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West Ratchets Up Pressure On Belarus Over Vote

Belarusian opposition supporters light candles near a picture of jailed opposition presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau at a prison's wall during a demonstration in Minsk on December 21.
Belarusian opposition supporters light candles near a picture of jailed opposition presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau at a prison's wall during a demonstration in Minsk on December 21.
By RFE/RL
Western leaders are looking for new ways to pile pressure on Belarus over its presidential election and detention of hundreds of opposition protesters.

In Brussels, steps are under way to launch discussions of the possible renewal of EU visa sanctions against top Belarus officials.

The European Parliament is due to hold an extraordinary meeting on January 12 to discuss the Belarus crisis. The meeting, which will involve all the parliamentary committees concerned with Belarus, is at the request of the parliament's president, Jerzy Buzek.

Buzek has said in the run-up to the planned meeting that the parliament "will discuss possible further responses from the side of the European Union" and that "it is important we maintain pressure on the [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka government at the highest levels."

In preparation for next week's extraordinary session, the EU member states' Political and Security Committee (PSC) was meeting in Brussels on January 7. EU embassies in Minsk have forwarded to the committee a new list of Belarus officials who could be subjected to visa sanctions by the 27-member bloc.

Mounting Criticism

The EU imposed visa sanctions on Lukashenka and 40 other officials in the wake of the last Belarus presidential election in 2006 over concerns about its fairness and a postelection crackdown on the opposition. The EU later suspended the ban for 36 of the names in 2008 after Minsk released senior imprisoned political leaders.

Several top European officials called this week for renewed sanctions. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told the EU Observer, a news group closely following EU activities, that Lukashenka will be put back on an EU visa ban list along with dozens of other officials responsible for post-election beatings and arrests.

Bildt also suggested the EU reaction may not be limited to visas. He said "mass economic aid is clearly off the table at least for the time being," despite a pre-election EU offer to provide Minsk with 3 billion euros in assistance over the next three years.

Budapest -- which currently chairs the EU -- has equally spoken of renewed visa bans. Hungarian Ambassador to Belarus Ferenc Kontra said this week that Belarus should release all the detained protesters or face possible visa bans for top officials.

As Brussels looks for ways to step up pressure on Minsk, Washington also is sharpening its criticism of Lukashenka's government and its violent handling of opposition protesters.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met on January 6 in Washington with Belarusian and Belarusian-American human rights activists and called for the immediate release of detained opposition supporters.

Police in Belarus beat protesters with batons and rounded up opposition leaders after the December 19 election gave Lukashenka a fourth term with an officially reported 80 percent of the vote. Among those charged with "organizing mass disorder" are five of the candidates who challenged Lukashenka.

Watching In Washington

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Clinton's meeting with the activists was designed to send a message to Belarusian authorities.

"The secretary [Clinton] shares their concerns over the recent presidential elections, as well as the government's disproportionate use of force following those elections, as she continues to call for the immediate release of the remaining detainees and an end to repression of the opposition, the media and the civil society in Belarus," Toner said.

A State Department statement released after the meeting said that Clinton also told the activists that Washington is watching the Belarusian government's actions "closely," and considering a fresh response to its behavior.

Alesya Syomukha, an activist of the Belarusian diaspora in Washington, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that she was impressed by Clinton's expression of "great concern" and her support.

"I think that this will result in different steps than those we have seen before. I think that they are very concerned and will work with the Europeans to prepare a joint reaction," Syomukha said. "They asked for our advice about what should be done. We mentioned economic sanctions against Lukashenka's interests, and we said that the release of political prisoners should not be subject to some bargaining, as has happened in the past -- that is, the regime should not receive some benefits for releasing political prisoners."

The State Department's top official on Europe, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon, said on January 5 that Washington is "actively looking at all of our options, including additional sanctions" for dealing with Minsk.

One day earlier, both the United States and the European Union condemned Belarus for ordering the closure of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Belarus.

Belarus ordered the closure of the office on December 31 after the trans-Atlantic security group sharply criticized the presidential poll. The OSCE said its election observers assessed the vote tallying "as bad and very bad" in almost half of all observed polling stations.

In an apparent attempt to contain criticism over its closure of the OSCE office, Belarus said on January 6 it will seek to preserve contacts with the organization, which is headquartered in Vienna.

written by Charles Recknagel based on reports by RFE/RL Belarus Service and news agencies

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