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Authoritarian Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

A group of European Union states with diplomatic representatives in Belarus, together with the bloc's delegation in Minsk, will recommend several paths for the 27-member bloc to take, including expanding the scope of sanctions against authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka for hijacking an election last year and then violently cracking down on protesters demanding that he step down.

In a paper seen by RFE/RL, the group assesses the current political situation in the country and provides suggestions on policy options, including sanctions. The paper, titled "EU Heads Of Mission Report: February 2021 Review Of The EU Restrictive Measures Against Belarus," is set to be discussed in Brussels in the coming weeks. It is not guaranteed that all of the recommendations will be taken into account.

The paper spells out four different paths that Brussels can take when it comes to its eastern neighbor: "Wait and See," "A Pragmatic Equi-Distant," "Decisive Continued Downgrading of Relations," and "A Near Total Freeze of Relations."

The EU has already called the presidential election of 9 August "neither free nor fair" and stated that Lukashenka "lacks any democratic legitimacy."

In the wake of the crackdown of protestors that followed the vote, which saw most of the Belarusian opposition move into exile, the EU imposed visa bans and asset freezes on 88 individuals and seven entities, including Lukashenka and his son in three separate sanction rounds at the end of 2020. This wait--and-see path would, according to the document, also continue and reflect the current "gradual approach to sanctions."

The second option would entail issues such as "silent diplomacy, a high-level mission to Minsk/invitation to a neutral venue, keeping the mediation offer on the table, agreeing to talk to the regime and entering into a kind of dialogue at the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], entering into high level negotiations with Russia and the U.S. to increase outside pressure, offer an EU advisory mission/ EU special representative for Belarus.”

Among other things, the third path would include a downgrading of relations with more individuals and entities sanctioned, scaled-down diplomatic relations but also "supporting the initiation of criminal and other cases under national laws in EU member states, against perpetrators of torture and inhumane treatment."

Lines Lengthen Outside Jails As Belarus Tightens Crackdown
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The fourth and harshest option would be a near-total freeze of relations, meaning the severance of diplomatic relations, including the withdrawal of EU member states' ambassadors, a full sanctions regime hitting various industrial sectors, a ban on the sale of Eurobonds, and the possible alignment of the sanctions regime with that imposed on Russia. A moratorium on Belarus's participation in Eastern Partnership structures and a formal recognition of a government in exile would also be on the cards.

The document also notes a number of things that Belarusian authorities have to do in order to resume what is called "a meaningful dialogue with the EU," including the cessation of "all repression and abuse of the human rights of persons engaged in the pro-democracy movement, independent media and representatives of the civil society."

Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, has refused to negotiate with the opposition. Thousands of protesters -- including members of the free press -- have been jailed for taking to the streets to demand fresh elections.

The bloc is also demanding that Minsk should release, rehabilitate, and financially compensate political prisoners, ensure free and fair elections under OSCE observation, and "provide safe conditions for the return of those in political and forced exile."

The heads of missions suggest that Brussels should consider an expansion of the scope of sanctions if those EU key demands are not met.

Among the people who should be targeted with sanctions are top officials of the regime, including all members of the Security Council and their immediate relatives, the heads of regional administrations, and so-called “presidential aides” in the regions, as well as "rank-and-file executors of violence among the authorities such as police and special police officers like the KGB and OMON special police."

Asset freezes on companies should include "state-owned enterprises contributing to the financing of the regime such as oil refining, potassium production, and chemical production," financial institutions such as all state banks and private ones like the Minsk Transit Bank, companies in the machinery sector such as for example BelAz and the Minsk Tractor Works and the National Railways.

If the situation deteriorates further, it is suggested that sectoral sanctions could be enacted and include the prohibition of EU-domiciled or affiliated companies such as MasterCard, VISA, and Swift to provide services or supply goods from Belarusian companies dealing with energy and raw materials, as well as all state-owned companies and those belonging to individuals on the EU sanctions list.

Aleksei Navalny's brother, Oleg, is among 10 of his supporters whom the Memorial NGO has recognized as political prisoners. (file photo)

The Moscow-based Memorial Human Rights Center has recognized 10 associates and supporters of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny as political prisoners.

In a February 8 statement, Memorial said it had recognized as political prisoners the individuals detained on the eve of unsanctioned mass rallies against Navalny's arrest in late-January and charged with publicly calling for the violation of sanitary and epidemiological safety precautions.

The 10 include, Navalny's brother Oleg Navalny, Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, municipal lawyers Dmitry Baranovsky, Konstantin Yanauskas, and Lyusya Shtein, the chief of the Physicians' Alliance NGO Anastasia Vasilyeva, a leading member of the Pussy Riot protest group, Maria Alyokhina, a coordinator of Navalny's team in Moscow, Oleg Stepanov, Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, and an activist Nikolai Lyaskin.

The majority of these people were placed under house arrest. If found guilty of the charges, each person faces up to two years in prison.

"The persecution of protesters on the grounds of violating sanitary and epidemiological restrictions looks especially cynical while thousands of peaceful demonstrators are being detained and transported in tightly filled police vehicles and kept in police stations in conditions that even further expedite the spread of the illness," Memorial said in its statement.

A day earlier, more than 100 Russian actors, directors, writers, musicians, poets, and scholars issued an open letter addressed to the nation, authorities, and political parties, to protest against the violent crackdown on the rallies and calling the persecution of the demonstrators "a real shame for Russia's judicial system."

The letter does not mention Navalny's name, but among other issues, the text mentions his persecution and the mass arrests of his supporters in recent weeks.

"We call on the goodwill of the people, all our fellow citizens, to join the condemnation of violence against political opponents, to raise their voices to defend civil peace, democracy, and a decent life, and [we call on] representatives of the authorities to return to the boundaries of constitutional law and order," the letter says.

Navalny, 44, was arrested on January 17 after returning to Russia from Germany where he was treated for a nerve-agent poisoning that he says was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which the Kremlin has denied.

More than 10,000 people were rounded up by police during nationwide rallies protesting Navalny's arrest in more than 100 Russian towns and cities on January 23 and January 31.

On February 2, Navalny was found guilty of violating the terms of a suspended sentence connected to an embezzlement case that he has called politically motivated. The court converted the sentence to 3 1/2 years in prison. Given credit for time already spent in detention, the court said the Kremlin critic would have to serve 2 years and 8 months behind bars.

The court's ruling caused new mass protests across the country that were also violently dispersed by police. More than 1,400 people were detained by police in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities on that day.

With reporting by Ekho Moskvy

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