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Belarusians Barred From EU Put On Defiant Face

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka: Putting on a defiant face
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka: Putting on a defiant face
MINSK -- What do the president of Belarus, the country's prosecutor-general, the rector of the Belarusian State University and one of Minsk's top surgeons have in common?

They have all been barred from traveling to European Union countries as punishment for what Europe sees as their role in a brutal postelection crackdown on the Belarusian opposition. The United States is expected to announce its own travel ban list soon.

So far, those targeted have mostly put on a defiant face, deriding the travel ban -- whose full list was published February 2 -- as absurd and ineffective.

"I'm not too concerned about it," says Siarhey Kastsian, who heads the Belarusian parliament's committee on international affairs. "These visa bans are political barbarism from the Middle Ages. Will they affect Lukashenka? Not at all. It's not the first time Lukashenka is on such a list. So what? We'll just continue living the way we used to."

The travel ban targets 157 individuals and is part of a new raft of sanctions against Lukashenka's regime, which the United States once famously branded the last dictatorship in Europe. Other sanctions include new EU asset freezes and a U.S. ban on deals with Belarus's state-controlled oil monopoly, Belneftekhim.

Western leaders have repeatedly called for the release of all protesters detained during mass street demonstrations against the December 19 reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, judged by Western monitors as fraudulent. As many as 29 protesters remain in prison and two have been placed under house arrest.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said that the sanctions were "under constant review" and that Brussels would not hesitate to add new names to the list if the human rights situation in Belarus further deteriorated.

A first EU travel ban on Lukashenka and his close entourage was imposed in 2006 but eased two years later in a bid to encourage democratic reform in Belarus.

'Political Kindergarten'

Belarus has vowed to respond proportionately to the new sanctions, although what the retaliatory steps would involve is still unclear.

Like Kastsian, those targeted by the travel ban have reacted with a mix of anger and derision.

Nikolai Lozovik, the secretary of the Central Election Commission, was placed on the list along with several of his colleagues at the commission, which handed Lukashenka his disputed fourth presidential victory last month.

"If the OSCE invites me, I don't think the sanctions will apply because in the case of international forums it's the international organization that issues the invitation and takes care of the visa," he tells RFE/RL. "Last year, for example, I traveled to Vienna twice for OSCE conferences. As for my personal life, I don't have any plans to spend my holidays in Courchevel. There are ski resorts here that are just as good."

In addition to high-ranking officials, the travel ban list includes Lukashenka's two sons Viktor and Dmitry, as well as parliamentarians, judges, prosecutors and the top brass from Belarus' feared KGB security service.

The European Union has also singled out a number of journalists working for state-run media.

Anatol Lemyashonak: "No logic to it."
The editor in chief of the "Respublika" newspaper and head of the Belarusian union of journalists, Anatol Lemyashonak, rejects the sanctions against most of the targeted reporters as baseless.

"There is no logic to it," he says. "Take 'Sovetskaya Belarus,' for example. They wanted to punish [editor] Pavel Yakubovich and his four deputies. But at least three of these deputy editors have nothing to do with all this. They write about agriculture, transport, social issues. This is political kindergarten."

Perhaps the most intriguing name on the list is Viktor Sirenko, chief surgeon at the Minsk Emergency Hospital.

Sirenko heads the hospital from which Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, a renowned poet who ran against Lukashenka in the December election, was snatched by a group of men in plainclothes and taken to a KGB prison in the aftermath of the protests.

The surgeon is accused of closing his eyes on the abduction and declaring that Nyaklyaeu was admitted to hospital with only light bruises, while opposition leaders claim he suffered severe head injuries after police beat him during the December 19 protests.

Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu lies in a hospital bed, shortly before being snatched away by men in plainclothes.
Footage from the rally shows the 64-year-old lying bloodied and unconscious in the snow.

Sirenko dismissed the EU's decision to deny him entry as "nonsense" and said the travel ban would in no way disrupt his life.

"I have neither assets nor investments or business deals there," he says. "We rarely leave the country in our work with Europeans. They tend to come here instead, from Poland, Germany and Italy. Such meetings are planned here next week, actually."

Air-Tight Sanctions?

Critics of Lukashenka have welcomed the fresh EU and U.S. sanctions, although some say they would have liked the ban to include Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovych, who took office after the postelection violence but remains a close ally of the president.

Pavel Sheremet, an award-winning Russian journalist who co-authored a critical book on Lukashenka, "The Accidental President," says financial sanctions are the most effective tool against Lukashenka's regime.

"The fate of Belarus lies in Europe's hands," he says. "It's precisely through economic sanctions that Europe can radically change the situation in the country. Everyone understands that Russia's financial aid won't save Lukashenka's in the event of economic sanctions."

Some officials on the new EU black list, however, claim they were able to bypass the first travel ban. There's also some concern that top officials, particularly those with ties to the KGB, may be able to continue to travel freely on fake passports.

But Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian KGB colonel who defected to Europe in the 1980s, says traveling on a forged passport has become a lot more difficult in recent years.

"Making fake passports was perfectly possible even 30, 20, and 15 years ago," says Gordievsky, who himself worked for a decade in the KGB's unit responsible for issuing fake passports. "Now, however, the Americans have introduced a highly technological method of identification based on people's eyes. A number of European countries have also introduced this technology. From a person's eyes, they can tell if his document is a fake."

Belarusian officials hoping to keep their cash in Swiss banks may also be in for a disappointment.

The Swiss envoy to Belarus told RFE/RL that Switzerland, although not an EU member states, will likely align with the bloc's latest travel and financial sanctions on Belarus.

reporting by Anna Sous, Syarhey Navumchyk and Ales Dashchinsky in Minsk, writing by Claire Bigg in Prague
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