LUXEMBOURG, April 10, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU decision underscores the hope among the mainstream of the union's member states that it is possible simultaneously to get tough with the regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- and still keep some lines of communication open.
Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of the current EU chair Austria, announced the decision today, confirming the EU had decided to limit itself to targeting only a few dozen Belarusian leaders.
"Today, we have decided to impose a visa ban against members of the Belarus leadership responsible for violation of the international electoral standards during the presidential elections, and [those] responsible as well for the crackdown on civil society and democratic opposition," Plassnik said.
The fact that the list of 31 officials is headed by Lukashenka represents the EU's intention to make it clear that its patience with the Belarusian regime has run out.
Among the 31, there are three prominent members of the presidential administration, three ministers (but not the foreign minister), the head of the country's KGB, a number of judges, and the heads of local electoral commissions.
However, it was clear there were divisions among the foreign ministers making the decision. Cyril Svoboda, the Czech foreign minister and one of the spokesmen within the EU for a tough line against Minsk, was visibly disappointed. He told journalists on the sidelines of today's meeting that he was not "completely satisfied" with the list.
"We did agree all, we did agree on the measures we imposed today," Svoboda said. "But I'm repeating again that I am not completely satisfied because the ban list is very short and in my view we need to put some other people on the ban list."
In particular, Svoboda said the EU should target many prominent figures working for the state-run television and radio establishment.
Svoboda accuses them of "deforming democracy in Belarus," but the visa blacklist features only Alyaksandr Zimouski, head of the National State Television and Radio Company .
Svoboda's sentiments also broadly reflect those of Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, and some others. The length of the list was proposed last week by EU ambassadors in Brussels, and marked a victory for those EU states that advocated a more cautious approach regarding Belarus.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, who supported today's decision, explained the reasoning behind it to RFE/RL. He said it sends a message while leaving the door open for future discussion.
"[It reflects] possibly a certain conservativeness on the one hand and on the other a calculation that in order to change things in Belarus for the better, communication remains necessary," Paet said. "To impose a complete ban on movement would make it hard to take [the EU's] message equally well to governmental circles."
But the EU also says in an accompanying statement that the blacklist will be under constant review -- meaning it could be expanded. The statement also makes it plain that the EU's main concern currently lies with what it calls "political detainees" -- the many opposition activists and their supporters arrested in the course of the manifestations that followed the elections. The clear assumption is that the length of the visa-ban list depends on what the regime in Minsk will do next.
Mindful Of Russia
However, EU officials and diplomats admit privately that for a number of the bloc's member states, their reaction to events in Belarus is partly shaped by a wish not to complicate relations with Russia.
The limelight afforded to opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich is widely held to constitute an important litmus test of how far the European Union is willing to go in actively undermining Lukashenka's regime. Milinkevich was not invited to attend today's foreign ministers' meeting -- as he was in February.
This was something Czech foreign minister Svoboda openly noted afterward.
"Yesterday [April 9] Mr. Milinkevich, he called me and he said that he was slightly disappointed not to be present today in Luxembourg, because he wanted to sit at the very same table with us, and to discuss the situation in Belarus," Svoboda said.
The foreign ministers also did not heed calls by the European Parliament to declare Lukashenka's presidential victory illegal and to demand new elections.