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COVID-19: EU Provides 'Unparalleled' Support To Balkans; EU Commissioner Says Belarus 'Interested' In Aid

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A Vitsebsk restaurant prepares free lunches for doctors during the pandemic.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 215,000 with more than 3 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Western Balkans

The European Commission says it is allocating 180 million euros ($195 million) in grants to help six EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans cope with the coronavirus pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences.

Also on April 29, the European Investment Bank said it would provide a 1.7 billion-euro ($1.84 billion) loan package for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

Overall, the bloc has mobilized a package of some 3.3 billion euros to benefit the six countries, the European Commission said in a document sent to EU institutions ahead of a video conference between EU and Balkan leaders scheduled for May 6.

The EU "has a particular responsibility and interest to lead the global response and provide assistance to partners in need, all the more in its immediate neighborhood," the document reads.

"As part of its international efforts, the EU is providing essential and unparalleled support to the Western Balkans," it adds.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, there was criticism that the EU had been slow to help the Balkans, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic slamming the bloc for "abandoning his country" and praising China for its assistance during the crisis.

Restrictions on exports of medical equipment from the EU to the region, which have since been lifted, were also criticized.

Speaking to journalists in Brussels, European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova said that the EU assistance package was aimed at providing "immediate support for the health sector through social and economic recovery needs," as well as "continuous support to address the impact of the COVID-19 crisis once the immediate measures to contain the pandemic are eased."

"This longer-term recovery will focus on transport and energy links for the region, the challenges faced by young people, alongside the encouraged green and digital transitions," Jourova added.

Economic growth in the Western Balkans is expected to contract between 3 and 5.6 percent this year, according to the World Bank, as the region grapples with the fallout from the coronavirus epidemic.

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"While the economic impact of the ongoing pandemic in the region is difficult to forecast, there is little doubt that this pandemic is wreaking havoc on lives around the region -- taxing health-care systems, paralyzing economic activity, and undermining the well-being of people," Linda Van Gelder, World Bank country director for the Western Balkans, said in a statement on April 29.

According to a "baseline scenario," containment measures could be lifted by the end of June and a gradual recovery could begin in the second half of the year.

The "downside scenario" assumes containment measures will only be lifted at end of August, with a recovery of economic activity only possible in the final quarter of 2020.

Belarus

Belarus is considering seeking financial assistance from the European Union to help mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis says.

Belarus "has expressed interest in the macrofinancial assistance program. So we are in close contact with Belarusian authorities," Dombrovskis said in an interview with RFE/RL on April 29.

"Of course, there are also certain political preconditions to be met, but in this case too, Belarus needs to seek and reach also at least IMF precautionary financing,” he cautioned.

Under its macrofinancial-assistance (MFA) program, the EU provides medium-/long-term loans or grants, or a combination of these, to countries experiencing a balance-of-payments crisis, as a complement to financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

To benefit from such a program, countries must respect human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

Last week, the European Commission announced it had adopted a proposal for a 3 billion-euro ($3.25 billion) MFA package for 10 mainly East European countries to help them limit the economic fallout of the COVID-19 epidemic.

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The 10 countries included Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and most Western Balkan states.

Earlier on April 29, the World Health Organization (WHO) called on Minsk to implement further measures to slow the coronavirus spread in the country.

The WHO said after sending a mission to Belarus that the pandemic "has entered the community transmission scenario," and warranted "additional interventions -- particularly physical-distancing measures."

"The COVID-19 response in Belarus has provided valuable insights towards a better understanding of the transmission of the virus and the importance of a multisectoral approach to this pandemic. These experiences will benefit not only the development of the next phase of the response in Belarus, but also the responses in other European countries and the global efforts to combat this virus," the WHO said in an executive summary of the mission's report.

Belarus has been criticized for not imposing social-distancing measures or restricting public activities in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In stark contrast to other European countries which have adopted strict lockdown measures to contain the pandemic, Belarus's borders remain open, while factories, shops, and restaurants continue to conduct business as usual, and spectators are permitted to attend sporting events, including matches held by the national soccer league.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has publicly dismissed concerns about the dangers of the virus several times.

According to the latest data provided by Belarusian health authorities, there have been 12,208 confirmed coronavirus cases in the country, including 79 deaths.

Ukraine

Several hundred small-business owners have protested in the Ukrainian capital, demanding the authorities ease restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

The demonstrators gathered on April 29 near a government building in the center of Kyiv and briefly blocked traffic in defiance of rules against public gatherings.

Wearing face masks, the protesters called for permission to reopen small enterprises such as shops, restaurants, and cafes to save them from bankruptcy.

"One more day of your protection and we will disappear," one sign read.

Ukraine has confirmed 9,866 coronavirus cases, including 250 deaths, according to official data.

Authorities imposed lockdown restrictions in March, ordering all nonessential businesses to close and reserving public transport for employees of essential services, including police and hospital staff.

The government plans to gradually lift the lockdown after May 11 if virus cases don't spike.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Belarus and Ukrainian services, AP, and AFP
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