WASHINGTON -- The United States and the European Union will “soon” impose more economic pain on Belarus for creating a migrant crisis on its border with the EU, a top U.S. diplomat said.
U.S. Special Envoy to Belarus Julie Fisher told a Wilson Center conference on November 22 that strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka “bears full responsibility” for the crisis that has left thousands of migrants from the Middle East stranded between the EU and Belarusian border and that action must be taken to change his behavior.
“The United States and the EU have both made it clear that more sanctions pressure is coming soon,” she said.
The United States and the EU accuse Lukashenka of funneling the migrants across the bloc’s borders to retaliate against sanctions imposed on his government over a brutal crackdown on the Belarus opposition following last year's presidential election, which is widely considered to have been rigged.
Dirk Schuebel, the head of the delegation of the European Union to Belarus, told the conference that the migrant situation "remains very worrying and Minsk continues to escalate the tensions."
He said the EU is coordinating with the United States on the next round of sanctions.
The bloc is expected to announce its fifth round of economic penalties against Belarus by December 2, according to EU officials. Those sanctions are expected to target about 30 individuals and entities.
Fisher did not say if the U.S. sanctions would be announced the same day.
Fisher and Schuebel rejected the idea that U.S. and EU sanctions are not having an impact on Belarus.
Schuebel told that conference that Belarusian officials and company representatives have fought the imposition of EU penalties -- a sign, he says, that they are working.
Fisher said the last U.S. round of sanctions, announced in August, were its toughest to date against Belarus but that not all of its provisions have gone into effect yet.
The comments come amid heightened tensions along Belarus’s borders as the migrant crisis continued on November 22.
Germany again dismissed a proposal by Lukashenka to take in some 2,000 migrants currently in the former Soviet republic after Belarus's authoritarian ruler accused European officials of failing to engage with Minsk on solving the problem and warning it could lead to armed conflict.
A German government spokesperson immediately rejected Lukashenka's criticism of Berlin's "reluctance" to take about 2,000 migrants who are among thousands stranded along the Belarusian border with EU's eastern flank, as well as in other parts of the country.
"The idea of having a humanitarian corridor to Germany for 2,000 migrants is not a solution that is acceptable to Germany or the EU," the German government spokesperson said, reiterating Berlin's already stated position on a similar proposal from last week.
In Brussels, EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc has been “in touch with a number of Belarussian interlocutors,” adding that it is looking into the possibility of holding talks with UN agencies and Belarusian officials at a technical expert level "in order to see how we can assist and help in the efforts to facilitate the repatriation of people stuck in Belarus back to safety."
Lukashenka was quoted on November 22 by the state BelTA news agency as saying he didn't want the crisis to escalate and that "we don't want confrontation...because we understand that if we go too far, war is unavoidable."
Meanwhile, the Belarusian Interior Ministry said 118 migrants left the country on November 22 and that more would depart on November 23, according to Russia's TASS news agency.
"Just yesterday, 118 people left the National Airport Minsk, and this action is continuing today," Interior Minister Alyaksey Begun was quoted as saying.
"These 118 people flew out individually. The internal affairs bodies and border troops assisted them in processing documents and passing through the state border," Begun said, according to TASS.
He said that none of the migrants had applied for asylum in Belarus.
"A group of foreign citizens is still at the National Airport Minsk today, and it has passed all customs and border procedures, awaiting return to the country of citizenship," Begun said, without specifying the destination.
Most migrants that traveled to Belarus are from conflict-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.