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EU Prepares 'Clear Message' For Belarus


Teddy bears with pro-democracy messages were parachuted into the outskirts of Minsk from a light aircraft chartered by a Swedish public relations firm in early July.
Teddy bears with pro-democracy messages were parachuted into the outskirts of Minsk from a light aircraft chartered by a Swedish public relations firm in early July.
EU officials have met in Brussels to discuss Belarus, hinting at the end of their meeting that more sanctions could be imposed on Minsk soon.

The meeting came after Belarus last week expelled Sweden's ambassador "for being too supportive of human rights," though some suspected the expulsion came because of a publicity stunt in early July that saw teddy bears carrying freedom-of-speech messages dropped over Minsk by planes that came from Sweden.

Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland said the expulsion of the Swedish ambassador "will not help to end Belarus' isolation from the rest of Europe."

Chairman of the EU Political and Security Committee Olof Skoog, himself a Swede, said a "very clear message" would soon be sent to Minsk.

"There is going to be a very clear message to all Belarus ambassadors around Europe in the next few days expressing full solidarity with the Swedes on this," Skoog said.

He said the EU stands beside Sweden in the diplomatic dispute with neighbor Belarus:

"This is not a situation merely between Sweden and Belarus. It is a situation that has erupted due to the decision by Belarus, which affects the EU's relation with Belarus."

Reviewing Sanctions

There was speculation ahead of Friday's meeting that the EU might announce it was recalling all its ambassadors from Minsk.

EU officials did not take such a decision, but Skoog indicated the EU could take further action against Belarus this autumn.

"We will be reviewing sanctions, restrictive measures against Belarus later on in the next few months," he said.

"As you know, the situation as to the political prisoners, the repression against civil society, and the lack of democracy in Belarus is a determining factor in restrictive measures against that country," Skoog added.

"And certainly the latest [incident] -- and this is the way it is going to be spelled out in the next few weeks -- the decision against the Swedish Embassy will, of course, also have an effect on how we discuss our relations with Belarus."

The U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House is among several international NGOs that have been following the teddy bear incident and its fall-out.

"October seems relatively far away, but building momentum and pushing for more sanctions is what's needed," said Susan Corke, the director of Eurasia programs at Freedom House, who spoke to RFE/RL after the EU meeting.

"[Potash mining giant] Belaruskali is one [company] that Freedom House has identified as an important one to be considered to add to sanctions and [the EU should] expand the visa bans and continue to maintain solidarity throughout the EU countries," she said. "Belarus has been good at exploiting that in the past."

The EU has already imposed a series of sanctions on Minsk for its crackdown on members of the Belarus political opposition.

In January 2011, the EU reinstated a travel ban against Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka after the government detained scores of opposition supporters in the wake of disputed elections.

Some 250 Belarus government and court officials have also been banned from traveling to EU countries.

Minsk Invites Swedish Pilots

Meanwhile, the Belarusian State Security Committee called on the Swedish pilots who flew across the border into Belarus last month and dropped teddy bears and leaflets supporting Belarusian dissidents to come to Belarus for questioning.

The committee is investigating the violation of the border and teddy bear airdrop.

At least two people have been detained and later fined in Belarus and some top border officials, including the chairman of the State Border Guard Committee, Major General Ihar Rachkovski, and the commander of the country’s air forces, Major General Dzmitry Pakhmelkin, were fired over the incident.

The committee said the Swedish pilots could fill in some gaps in information about the incident, such as who in Belarus was involved in planning and carrying out the teddy-bear drop.

The committee said it would guarantee the rights of the pilots if they came to Belarus.

With reporting by AFP, dpa, ITAR-TASS, and Interfax
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