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Belarus: EU Says Belarusian Elections Less Than Free and Fair, Sanctions 'In the Air'

Counting the votes The European Union has endorsed findings by international election observers that yesterday's parliamentary elections in Belarus were not free or fair. The EU had earlier condemned the simultaneous referendum that asked voters whether President Alyaksandr Lukashenka should be able to stand for a third term. Officials in Brussels say EU member states could decide to impose sanctions on the country.

Brussels, 19 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission today endorsed the conclusions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that the 17 October elections in Belarus fell well short of democratic standards.

Emma Udwin is a spokeswoman at the European Commission in Brussels. "Regrettably, [the findings] do bear out the fears that we expressed before the elections and the referendum -- that the elections would take place in a manner that was less than free and fair," Udwin said.

The EU's security and foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, issued a statement yesterday saying he views "with great concern the way in which these parliamentary elections have taken place, and the referendum itself." He, too, referred to a number of serious shortcomings noted by international observers and concluded that the elections also clearly "fell short from being free and fair."
One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Belarus "can forget about the neighborhood policy" now. Instead, in the words of the official, "sanctions are in the air."

Official results showed that more than 77 percent of voters supported a referendum to scrap presidential term limits. The step will enable Lukashenka to stand for a third term in 2006. In the voting for the largely powerless 110-seat House of Representatives, opposition members failed to win a single seat.

Udwin says the unsatisfactory manner in which the elections were conducted is likely to impact on the EU's relationship with Belarus.

The EU is currently in the process of finalizing a set of "action plans" that will set out steps to build enhanced ties with its closest neighbors -- among them Ukraine and Moldova, but not Belarus.

Udwin says this is not because Minsk is not eligible for such plans.

"The EU's position is that we would very much like to see a more developed relationship with Belarus. And, indeed, they are eligible to be members of the neighborhood policy and draw the advantages that that can bring," Udwin said.

However, EU officials have long made clear that any thaw in the EU-Belarus relationship remains highly unlikely as long as Lukashenka remains in power.

One diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Belarus "can forget about the neighborhood policy" now. Instead, in the words of the official, "sanctions are in the air."

The official says the EU has a "history of being willing to respond with sanctions" to infractions against democracy and human rights. The EU imposed a visa ban on the Belarusian leadership a few years ago when it put obstacles in the way of an OSCE mission in Minsk. The sanctions were lifted once the obstacles were removed.

The EU has also imposed a visa ban on a number of high-ranking officials personally linked to the obstruction of investigations into the disappearance of four prominent opposition figures in 1999 and 2000.

Ambassadors from the 25 EU member states are meeting in Brussels today to discuss, among other things, relations with Belarus. The official quoted above says it is possible the EU could at some point impose so-called "smart sanctions" on the country, designed to target Lukashenka and his top officials.

Meanwhile, the European Commission will continue to finance small-scale aid programs aimed at promoting democratization and civil society in Belarus.

Some members of the European Parliament recently demanded that the EU sharply increase its support to democratic forces in the country.

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