European Union foreign ministers gathered in Brussels on September 21 failed to agree on sanctions against Belarus, despite a plea from the country’s self-exiled opposition leader.
Cyprus has been objecting to a list of sanctions against Belarus, demanding the EU also take measures against Turkey in an unrelated dispute over Ankara's maritime gas exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean.
The impasse created by one of the bloc's smallest members has highlighted how EU diplomacy is often paralyzed by a system that gives one country veto power over all the others. The dispute will now be addressed at an EU leaders’ summit on September 24-25.
"Although there is a clear will to adopt these sanctions, it has not been possible to do that today because the required unanimity was not reached," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters after hosting the talks.
He added that if the EU fails to impose sanctions, then "our credibility is at stake."
Cyprus's position has the sympathy of some EU countries, particularly France, but even Paris wants the island to decouple the Belarus file from its problems with Turkey as the bloc intensifies diplomacy with Ankara.
Patience with Cyprus in most European capitals is running out.
"It is regrettable that today we could not decide on sanctions on violations of human rights there due to 'a hostage-taking' by a member state," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics wrote on Twitter. "Sends a wrong signal to Belarusians, our societies and the whole world."
Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides insisted the EU must show consistency with violations of sovereignty and human rights.
"Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles, cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent," he said.
The EU vowed three weeks ago to slap sanctions on Belarusian officials whom the bloc blames for abuses against ongoing protests and electoral fraud that gave authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a landslide victory in the country's August 9 election. So far, the bloc has put together a list of about 40 people it could sanction with asset freezes and travel bans in response to the crackdown.
Belarus opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who met EU foreign ministers in Brussels before the formal gathering, pressed the bloc to be “more brave” in its actions as she showed officials in Brussels pictures of mass protests and police beatings.
Tsikhanouskaya told reporters that sanctions were a key tool to "force the so-called authorities to start dialogue with us” and that the EU should not recognize Lukashenka’s legitimacy.
The bloc has not yet made a decision whether the list should include Lukashenka, who has repressed the opposition and independent news media during 26 years in power and refuses to talk with the protesters.
Speaking after meeting Tsikhanouskaya over breakfast, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “the violence that Lukashenka is exerting against peaceful demonstrators is completely unacceptable.”
Maas, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said the ministers must “ask ourselves the question of whether Mr. Lukashenka, the one who bears the main responsibility, mustn’t also be sanctioned by the European Union.”
The meeting in Brussels came a day after Belarusian police detained hundreds of protesters during a sixth weekend of nationwide rallies against Lukashenka. More than 100,000 people attended the rally in Minsk, defying police warnings not to assemble. Protests were held in several other Belarusian cities.
Police have arrested an estimated 12,000 people since the protests began. They have also tortured hundreds of those detained, sparking outrage in the West.