The European Union says it regrets Belarus’s decision to cut ties with the bloc, saying it will only further isolate the country and have a negative impact on the Belarusian people.
In a statement on Facebook on June 28, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry announced Minsk had recalled its permanent representative to the EU for consultations after Brussels imposed economic sanctions in response to the forced diversion of a passenger flight to Minsk last month that allowed for the arrest of a dissident journalist and his girlfriend.
The ministry suggested the EU representative in Minsk also leave for consultations, and said those responsible for the sanctions, which target key sectors of the Belarusian economy and major revenue sources for the regime of authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, would be banned from entering Belarus.
Accusing the EU of using sanctions “as a tool to impose pressure on a sovereign and independent state," the ministry said that Minsk is also suspending its participation in the Eastern Partnership program, which seeks closer cooperation between the EU and six former Soviet republics -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
European Council President Charles Michel decried the decision, saying in a tweet that it “will escalate tensions further and have a clear negative impact on the people of Belarus by depriving them of opportunities provided by our cooperation.”
In a separate tweet, Michel wrote that the people of Belarus "can count on the EU.”
“We stand by you in solidarity and with practical support. We recall your right to elect your president through new, free, and fair elections.”
Separately, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Minsk’s decision to suspend its participation in the Eastern Partnership framework “serves only to further isolate Belarus and is yet another demonstration of the regime’s disregard for the Belarusian people.”
“The EU remains open to continue working with Belarusian people within this framework and will continue to support the Belarusian people and civil society, as well as their democratic aspirations,” said the spokeswoman, Nabila Massrali.
Regarding the Belarusian authorities’ move to request that the EU envoy to Minsk is recalled to Brussels for consultations, Massrali said that “keeping channels of communication open is crucial in times of crisis. This has always been our intention."
Minsk has also started a procedure to suspend the readmission agreement between the EU and Belarus, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said, adding that such a move would “negatively affect the cooperation with the European Union in terms of [the] fight against illegal migration and organized crimes.”
But Massrali refuted the ministry's claim, saying the suspension would not automatically affect the visa regime between Minsk and Brussels, which she said was crucial for preserving personal links between EU and Belarusian citizens.
"The decision to suspend the Readmission Agreement does not imply the automatic suspension of the Visa Facilitation Agreement (VFA) between the EU and Belarus according to a suspension article in the VFA," Massrali said on June 29.
"It should be reminded that the Visa Facilitation Agreement is one of the most important tools that we have to maintain strong people-to-people links between the EU and the Belarusian people. This remains a core objective for the EU," she said. "The actions of the Lukashenka regime are isolating the country, but we are doing everything we can for the Belarusian people not to be isolated too."
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said the head of the EU delegation to Belarus, Dirk Schuebel, was summoned at the ministry to inform him of the moves.
The previous day, Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said Belarusian officials were behind the surge in migrants this year into the Baltic country, calling it a plan “well-organized” by the Belarusian authorities.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s announcement comes four days after the EU imposed sanctions on Minsk’s main export industries and access to finance in response to “the escalation of serious human rights violations in Belarus and the violent repression of civil society, democratic opposition and journalists, as well as to the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk on 23 May 2021 and the related detention of journalist Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega."
Lukashenka’s regime has been under international pressure since it launched a brutal crackdown on the political opposition and the independent media in the wake of a disputed election in August 2020.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka ramps up pressure on NGOs and independent media as part of a brutal crackdown against protesters and the opposition following an August 2020 election widely considered fraudulent.
The protesters have said that election was rigged, while the EU, the United States, and other countries have refused to recognize the official results of the vote and do not consider Lukashenka to be the country's legitimate leader.
The crisis hit a new level on May 23 when Belarusian authorities scrambled a military jet to escort an Athens-Vilnius Ryanair flight to land in Minsk in what many countries regarded as a "state hijacking." After the plane, which was diverted just before it left Belarusian airspace, landed, law enforcement immediately arrested opposition blogger Pratasevich and Sapega, his Russian girlfriend.
The European Union, the United States, Britain, and Canada have previously slapped sanctions on Belarus over the diversion of the Ryanair flight, including asset freezes and visa bans imposed against dozens of officials, lawmakers, and ministers from Lukashenka's administration and his family members, as well as Belarusian entities.
The EU has also denied permission to any aircraft operated by Belarusian air carriers to land in, take off from, or overfly EU territories.
Previous rounds of Western sanctions also hit individual institutions and Lukashenka's inner circle over the brutal crackdown on the opposition by the Belarusian authorities in the wake of last years’ disputed presidential election.