Brussels, 7 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The EU appears to be getting serious about Belarus.
After an unprecedented, hour-long debate among the EU's 25 foreign ministers, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw delivered a tough, unanimous EU message to Lukashenka.
"[There was] profound concern at the democratic state -- or at the flaws to the democratic state in Belarus, and in particular, we want to see free and fair presidential elections," Straw said. "And in the event of failure to uphold international standards, the draft conclusions make it clear that measures such as asset freezes or visa bans could be taken against those responsible."
However, the formal EU declaration adopted later omitted any indication of the types of sanction the EU would apply. References to visa bans and asset freezes had been present in drafts initially examined by the meeting and seen by RFE/RL.
Their omission suggests that Poland was unable to achieve all it had sought.
Poland has been at the forefront of new EU states that have argued vociferously for a harder line from Brussels toward to the regime in Minsk. But the European Commission, among others, has argued that the Lukashenka government must not be pushed too hard before it is given the chance to respond to EU calls.
The EU in general wants to see greater openness to democracy in Belarus. But the measures threatened yesterday specifically target the conduct of the 2006 presidential election, whose exact date has yet to be released.
Lukashenka is set to run for a third term in office. Voters in Belarus passed a referendum in 2004 to change the constitution to allow him to seek reelection. The EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United States condemned the plebiscite as not meeting democratic standards.
The EU wants next year's election to be fair and free and open for all eligible candidates. Yesterday's EU declaration also called for the election to be monitored by international observers, preferably under the aegis of the OSCE.
The EU is already refusing entry to six senior Belarusian officials. Four of them stand accused of involvement in the disappearances of opposition politicians in 2000, while the EU has penalized the other two for their roles in a violent crackdown on protests in 2004.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said yesterday that any further visa bans would not extend to top politicians such as Lukashenka, as the EU wants to keep open some channels for political dialogue.
EU officials are keen to emphasize that any new sanctions will only target officials and not the Belarusian people at large.
The EU's assessment of the conditions in Belarus is sufficiently bleak to have provoked some measures already. Ferrero-Waldner said after yesterday's meeting that the European Commission has begun reorienting its aid to Belarus.
"We have [the] greatest concerns on Belarus and on the pressure that is there on the democratic forces, on the civil society and also on the independent media," Ferrero-Waldner said. "For that reason, we in the [European] Commission have said we would like to focus our aid specifically to civil society and to media. And this is what we have started to do."
The type of EU money for which Belarus is eligible -- known as TACIS funds -- requires the prior approval of the recipient country's government before it can be spent. The EU is now re- channeling increasing amounts of aid to minimize the need to consult the Minsk regime on how it is spent.
The commission is also pushing for a large-scale reassessment of how the EU spends future aid in its immediate neighborhood.
The 2007-13 budget, yet to be adopted, is expected to make provisions for a new European Neighborhood Policy Instrument. This new fund would have a freer hand in directly financing nongovernmental and civil society institutions in countries such as Belarus.