The European Union has agreed to prepare fresh sanctions against Belarus and Russia as the bloc ramps up pressure on its eastern neighbors over human rights abuses and lack of democracy.
Meeting in Luxembourg on October 12, foreign ministers from the EU’s 27 members reiterated that Belarus's August election was “neither free nor fair” and threatened to slap restrictive measures on Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the country’s autocratic leader, saying he “lacks any democratic legitimacy.”
The ministers also backed a proposal pushed by Paris and Berlin to impose sanctions on Russians suspected of being involved in the poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny in August that nearly took his life.
“The [EU] Council strongly condemns the violence employed by the Belarusian authorities against peaceful protesters and calls for the release of all arbitrarily detained persons, including political prisoners,” the bloc said in a statement noting the country’s “fraudulent” presidential election and subsequent “violent” crackdown on demonstrators protesting against it and media covering the events.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the ministers had given a “political green light” to prepare a new sanctions package that will include Lukashenka himself.
Earlier this month, the bloc agreed to impose visa bans and asset freezes on 40 Belarusian officials for their alleged role in the repression of protesters and the opposition, as well as fraud during the vote.
WATCH: Belarus Opposition Leader Says 'We Will Get Tougher' As Security Forces Launch Harsher Crackdown
Lukashenka was not included on the sanctions list, but the EU foreign ministers stated the bloc’s readiness to take “further restrictive measures against entities and high-ranking officials, including [Lukashenka], if the situation does not improve.”
Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory in the polls, triggering weeks of street protests against the results.
On October 11, thousands of people took part in rallies in Minsk and elsewhere across Belarus demanding Lukashenka’s resignation.
A total of 713 people were detained by security forces during the demonstrations, and 570 of them remain in custody waiting to face a court, according to the Interior Ministry.
Crisis In Belarus
Read our coverage as Belarusians continue to demand the resignation of Alyaksandr Lukashenka amid a brutal crackdown on protesters. The West refuses to recognize him as the country's legitimate leader after an August 9 election considered fraudulent.
“The EU calls on the Belarusian authorities to engage in an inclusive national dialogue and stands ready to support a peaceful democratic transition with a variety of instruments, including a comprehensive plan of economic support for a democratic Belarus,” the EU foreign ministers said.
France and Germany last week put forward proposals to slap sanctions on Russian individuals believed to be responsible for Navalny’s poisoning and an entity involved in the program producing a nerve agent from the Novichok group.
The sanctions proposal came after the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on October 6 confirmed the findings of specialized laboratories in Germany, France, and Sweden that Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent from the Novichok group.
Borrell told reporters that ministers reached a “political agreement” to implement restrictive measures advocated by France and Germany against those linked to the “assassination attempt” against Navalny. A technical body will now work on drawing up a list of restrictive measures.
Both Germany and France accused Russia of failing to fully investigate the circumstances of Navalny’s poisoning and holding anyone to account.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters as he arrived at the October 12 meeting that Navalny's poisoning could not "remain without consequences," adding that the proposal would impose “sanctions on certain people that caught our eye in this respect."
He did not give any details but Reuters quoted EU diplomats as saying there was broad support for asset freezes and travel bans on several Russian GRU military intelligence officials during the meeting.
Navalny’s health continues to improve since he was discharged on September 22 from the Berlin hospital where the anti-corruption campaigner received a month of treatment after being brought from Russia days after falling severely ill on a flight in Siberia.
Moscow has denied any involvement in the incident and says Russian doctors initially treating Navalny in the city of Omsk did not find any traces of poison in his body.
Senior Russian lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov said on October 12 that Russia may respond to the EU sanctions in a commensurate manner.
Other issues on the agenda at the foreign ministers meeting included the bloc's stance toward the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after both sides accused each other of violating a cease-fire shortly after it came into force on October 10.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn urged Ankara, Baku's closest ally, to push for a cease-fire.
"Turkey has not called for a truce yet, and I believe they are completely wrong with this position," Asselborn said in Luxembourg. "I think the message from Luxembourg will be a call on Turkey, a NATO member, to help arrange a cease-fire quickly."
EU foreign ministers will also discuss turbulent developments in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of the country’s disputed election last weekend as well as the outcome of the EU-Ukraine summit held earlier this month.