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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: April 13, 2006

13 April 2006, Volume 8, Number 14
EU IMPOSES VISA BAN ON LUKASHENKA, 30 OTHER OFFICIALS. EU foreign ministers on April 10 imposed a visa ban on 31 top Belarusian officials considered responsible for the conduct of the country's March 19 presidential poll, which the EU condemned as neither free nor fair. The number of those targeted by the EU falls short of what the Belarusian opposition and its more enthusiastic supporters within the EU had hoped for. However, EU officials made clear that new names can be added to the list and that further sanctions have not been ruled out.

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 on April 11, 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 regional 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 the April 10 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 the April 10 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.

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 the foreign ministers' meeting on April 10 -- 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. (Ahto Lobjakas)

EU OFFICIALS SAY UNION MEMBERSHIP HOPES ARE PREMATURE. Top EU officials on April 11 made clear that Moldova's hopes of joining the union are premature. Visiting Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev was urged by the EU at a meeting in Luxembourg to focus on reforms and work within the union's neighborhood policy instead. The EU side indicated that it can grant trade perks, although significant political concessions remain unrealistic at this stage.

The EU on April 11 told Moldova to concentrate on essential reforms instead of focusing on membership of the union.

After meeting with Moldova's prime minister, Vasile Tarlev, the EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Moldova's progress so far was enough to secure trade perks.

"Moldova has made quite important advances on the economic, political, and also structural reform side. It is a result of these efforts that Moldova has become part of the 'GSP Plus' [EU equivalent of most-favored nation] scheme that offers indeed some better access to the European market, and it has improved also the certification and the control of origin rules, which opens the way also to a possible granting of additional autonomous trade preferences," Ferrero-Waldner said.

But, Ferrero-Waldner said, reforms in the fields of human rights, minority protection, and the rule of law will still require "a lot of effort." She said the EU was ready to provide Moldova both technical and financial assistance to support reforms. However, longer-term aid figures will only emerge later this year as the EU works out the finer details of its 2007-2013 budget. The budget was only fully agreed on last week.

Prime Minister Tarlev said on April 11 that EU membership has been Moldova's "firm intention" since 2002.

But EU representatives made it clear on April 11 that any talk of Moldovan membership is premature at best.

Ursula Plassnik, foreign minister of current EU chair Austria, said Moldova must work within the EU neighborhood policy.

Plassnik said the EU is "aware" of Moldova's aspirations, and offers support and assistance. But she indicated Chisinau must remain aware membership is not a realistic goal at the present time.

"However, the quality of friendship and partnership, the quality of neighborhood is also to manage expectations in a responsible way. And this is what we are also doing with regard to our friends and partners in Moldova," Plassnik said. "For the time being we are at the very beginning of a long road, there is an enormous amount of challenges ahead of the Moldovan government and Moldovan political actors, where we can only encourage and support from our point of view, but where the essential burden will have to be taken and is taken upon the shoulders of the Moldovan government and the Moldovan population."

Both Plassnik and Ferrero-Waldner said the EU's neighborhood policy continues to be a sufficient framework for relations between the two sides. The policy explicitly avoids addressing the membership prospects of its target nations.

They were also pessimistic about Moldova's chances in the foreseeable future of getting the EU to relax its visa requirements on its citizens. Like talk of further enlargement, the opening of borders is an increasingly sensitive topic among EU electorates.

Last year, Moldova unilaterally stopped requiring visas from EU and U.S. citizens.

Responding to Tarlev's plea for the EU to be "open to Moldova's efforts" in this respect, Ferrero-Waldner said any easing of the visa regime needs the unanimous assent of all EU member states. To get that support, Moldova needs to step up its fight against corruption and cross-border crime, among other things.

Plassnik said that if border controls between the EU and Moldova were to be relaxed, this must increase security and not risk what she called "negative effects."

Ferrero-Waldner said high-ranking EU border-control and visa experts will meet their Moldovan counterparts in May to discuss closer technical cooperation.

Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner briefly also expressed EU support for Moldova in the country's fraught relations with Russia, most recently evidenced by Moscow's boycott of Moldovan wines. But, she said, the dispute remained a bilateral issue. The EU can do very little to intervene as long as Russia is not a member of the World Trade Organization, she said. (Ahto Lobjakas)