MINSK -- The United States and EU on October 2 slapped sanctions on Belarusian officials responsible for fraud in the August presidential election and a brutal crackdown on protesters and opposition members, drawing a sharp response from Belarus and its ally Russia.
Belarus immediately retaliated with its own list of people barred from entering the country, accusing the European Union of imposing the "punitive measure" on Belarus because it "did not comply with a set of ultimatum requirements that no self-respecting sovereign state would satisfy."
After nearly six weeks of diplomatic wrangling, EU leaders were able to overcome a stalemate created by Cyprus and agreed at a summit in Brussels on October 2 to sanction 40 Belarus officials.
The leaders also urged the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, “to prepare a comprehensive plan of economic support for democratic Belarus.”
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians take to the streets to demand the resignation of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and call for new elections after official results from the August 9 presidential poll gave Lukashenka a landslide victory.
The EU sanctions target Belarus officials in the Interior Ministry and police and security services for a crackdown on protesters and the opposition, as well as election officials blamed for falsifying the August 9 election results that gave strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term as president. Lukashenka is not on the sanctions list, but EU diplomats have said he may be added at a later date.
Among those hit by the travel bans and asset freezes are Interior Minister Yury Karayev, who the EU described as responsible for “repression and intimidation” in the wake of the election, including the arrest and ill‐treatment of peaceful demonstrators as well as intimidation and violence against journalists.
Central Election Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina was also sanctioned for misconduct during the election and “falsification of election results.”
“This sends a strong message of EU support to the democratic right of the Belarusian people to elect their president through free and fair elections, and our condemnation of repression and violence against people exercising their fundamental rights,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
In a coordinated move, the United States slapped sanctions on eight Belarusian officials, including the interior minister, the Treasury Department said.
“The Belarusian people’s democratic aspirations to choose their own leaders and peacefully exercise their rights have been met with violence and oppression from Belarusian officials,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “The United States and our international partners stand united in imposing costs on those who have undermined Belarusian democracy for years.”
Britain and Canada have already sanctioned Belarus officials, including Lukashenka.
Belarus quickly responded with tit-for-tat sanctions against the EU, although it was vague on those targeted on its blacklist.
The Foreign Ministry advised the embassies of its western neighbors Poland and Latvia to reduce their staffs and summoned the ambassadors of the two countries.
In tandem with the moves against Latvia and Poland, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said it was revoking the accreditation of all foreign media, claiming it was a long-considered move aimed at streamlining the process.
As of October 5, the ministry said that journalists working for foreign media organizations in the country must reapply with a revamped accreditation commission.
It said priority during the accreditation process will be given to citizens of the country where a media outlet is based, a move which could severely limit Belarusians from working for foreign outlets, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The Kremlin, which has endorsed Lukashenka, described the imposition of EU sanctions as a sign of “weakness.”
But spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Lukashenka's absence from the sanctions lists is more of a positive signal because blacklisting him would “deprive the EU of any opportunity to maintain dialogue with Belarus."
Following through on the threat of sanctions against Belarus was a crucial test for the EU, after tiny Cyprus blocked their implementation -- agreed to in August -- over a separate dispute with Turkey about maritime borders and energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean that has also drawn the ire of Greece.
Speaking to reporters early on October 2 after the first day of the summit, European Council President Charles Michel said it was important to overcome the Cypriot veto to show the EU remained “credible” in responding to election and human rights abuses in Belarus.
Cyprus had demanded the EU act consistently when responding to the violation of core principles and demanded sanctions on Turkey. EU sanctions require unanimous consent from member states, making the Cyprus hold up on Belarus a blow to EU's image.
To overcome the embarrassing diplomatic row with Cyprus, EU leaders agreed on a strong statement of support for Cyprus, as well as for Greece, and a warning that Turkey could face sanctions if it continues drilling in disputed waters. A summit in December is now expected to assess any progress with Turkey on issues in the Eastern Mediterranean.
"That we could now agree to those sanctions is an important signal because it strengthens the hand of those who are protesting for freedom of opinion in Belarus," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists on October 2 after the EU summit in Brussels.
A German government spokeswoman earlier said that Merkel will meet with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Berlin on October 6, a week after the Belarusian opposition leader held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Vilnius.
Tsikhanouskaya, whose supporters say won the presidential election, took refuge in neighboring Lithuania following the vote. She announced on September 30 she has begun creating a shadow cabinet, saying "Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime is not just illegitimate, but also is not capable of carrying out its duties."