Yesterday, 14 of the 15 European Union countries agreed to impose a travel ban on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and seven members of his cabinet. The EU says the ban is a protest against the poor state of human rights in the country. But Belarus insists Brussels is using "double standards" by not imposing similar restrictions on other leaders with poor rights records.
Prague, 20 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- All but one of the 15 European Union countries announced yesterday they will impose a travel ban on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and seven of his ministers. Portugal is the only country to abstain from the ban.
The agreement, made in protest against human rights violations by the Belarusian government, comes on the heels of a similar decision by the Czech government to deny Lukashenka an entry visa in order to attend this week's NATO summit in Prague.
Minsk condemned yesterday's EU decision, with a presidential spokeswoman quoting Lukashenka's dismissal of the move as "absurd." Spokeswoman Natalya Pyatkevich also accused the EU of "setting double standards" in cracking down on Belarusian authorities while overlooking other governments with poor rights records.
Some analysts say such remarks are not entirely groundless. Timofei Bordachev of the Moscow Carnegie Center told RFE/RL there are several reasons why the EU treats the Belarusian government differently from, for example, authoritarian regimes in the Central Asian republics. "Of course there are double standards, [and that is because] the EU is looking to have influence in Belarus rather than in Central Asia, first, because of the fact that Belarus will be an EU neighbor after [the EU's] future enlargement, [and] second, because Central Asia now is in the political and military sphere of influence of the United States. And under no circumstances is the European Union going to put pressure on the Central Asian states, because this would irritate its American ally," Bordachev said.
Bordachev said the EU is usually more demanding of countries that are closer to it geographically. This includes not only Belarus but also Ukraine and Turkey. "Such a policy, without any doubt, is more cynical from the point of view of human values. Is it not strange that European investments in China are increasing while no attention is paid to the problem of human right violations in China? I think [China] poses more [human rights] problems than Belarus," Bordachev said.
Kirill Koktysh of the Moscow Institute of International Relations said that leaders of the Central Asian states are often more ruthless than Lukashenka in clamping down on human rights but so far have avoided serious EU censure.
Koktysh said the EU is often more irritated by the way Belarusian authorities conduct themselves than by their actual actions. "The difference is only that Lukashenka [violates human rights] ostentatiously and makes a political event out of it. [Turkmen President Saparmurat] Niyazov and [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov do the same things, but they do it in a way that doesn't attract attention or make an event of it," Koktysh said.
Relations have long been strained between the EU and Minsk. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, has repeatedly criticized the country's human rights record and condemned Lukashenka's re-election last year as violating electoral standards.
In response, the Belarusian president accused European diplomats in the OSCE's Minsk mission of espionage and political sabotage. Lukashenka has systematically forced the officials to leave the mission, usually by refusing to renew their visas. The OSCE's last foreign staffer left Minsk on 29 October.
But some analysts say such behavior does not justify strict EU measures like the travel ban. Jakub Swiecicki, an analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Relations, said the fact that the EU is singling out Belarus is disturbing when one considers the activities of other countries in the region. "Look at [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the war in Chechnya and the European attitude to that, the very limited criticism of what is going on [there]. And so on. So, of course there are double standards -- and very high [double] standards. Sanctions [like the travel ban] are applied only on small countries with no big significance to the EU. That's obvious," Swiecicki said.
Swiecicki said the decision to ban travel visas for certain Belarusian officials will only heighten the country's isolation and will not help promote democracy or human rights. He said it may also create serious problems in future relations between Belarus and the EU. "You have a country in the middle of Europe which is going to be an isolated island of crime and lawlessness, and it's not good for anybody," Swiecicki said.
Koktysh from the Moscow Institute of International Relations added that Lukashenka is growing increasingly isolated not only from Western Europe but from Russia as well. It is a trend, he said, that has troublesome implications for both Moscow and Brussels, adding that, "Eighty percent of Russian-German trade passes through Belarusian territory and, if Lukashenka decides to, he can make life difficult for both Russia and the EU."
Swiecicki questioned the wisdom of the ban, saying it will be ineffective. "The only thing you can hope for is a development in civil society -- or what is still left of this society -- in Belarus," he said. "The West should support civil society; there is nothing more it can do."
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright voiced similar concerns today in Prague ahead of the NATO summit. "Democratization is not an event. It is a process. It is subjected to difficulties along the way, and we have to be vigilant about that and also provide assistance to each other, not only for military security but in support of democracy, which is a fragile process always, and there are examples that need to be held up as failures," Albright said.
Regarding Belarus, Albright said that despite great initial hopes a decade ago, the country has "somehow reverted to a single leader/party approach," and is an area of great concern.