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European Parliament Mulls How To Ramp Up Pressure On Belarus

Belarusian policemen detain protesters during a demonstration in Minsk last month.
Belarusian policemen detain protesters during a demonstration in Minsk last month.
BRUSSELS -- European Union measures against the Belarusian regime are paying dividends, but Brussels can and should do more to put pressure on Minsk.

Those were the main points made at a discussion on Belarus in the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on July 13.

The EU has imposed sanctions on Belarus over the violent crackdown on demonstrators protesting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's disputed reelection in December and the subsequent arrest and trials of opposition figures.

The measures include travel bans and asset freezes on 192 people as well as restrictions on three companies close to the ruling elite.

The chairman of the Belarusian human rights group Vyasna, Ales Byalyatski, told RFE/RL that the opposition in Belarus felt the leverage applied by Brussels.

Belarusian activist Ales Byalyatski says the EU pressure can be felt.
"In the last months we have felt that the interest in the situation in Belarus is there all the time and it is important that it doesn't slip down to fourth or fifth place," Byalyatski said.

Polish Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Jacek Protasiewicz argued that the EU sanctions had paid dividends.

He cited the case of Polish-Belarusian journalist Andrzej Poczobut, who faced several years in jail on charges that he insulted Lukashenka in articles and online comments.

Poczobut last week escaped with a suspended sentence, a softer verdict than expected. Protasiewicz said Poczobut had told him that the lenient sentence was due to the latest round of sanctions imposed by Brussels in June.

"There is no doubt for him and for me and for other people who are involved in Belarusian issues that there is clear evidence that even in such individual cases the risk of economic sanctions from the European Union are preventing the regime from being cruel, from being tough," Protasiewicz said.

Reaching Out To Opposition

The committee also discussed additional measures to both put further pressure on the regime and to improve the situation for the opposition.

Lithuanian MEP Justas Paleckis said better cooperation with both Russia and Ukraine was necessary and that Minsk could be used as leverage in EU-Russia relations.

"It is of course also especially important that Moscow understands that the modernization of its partnership with the EU must include the political and economic modernization of common neighbors like Belarus," Paleckis said.

He also suggested reaching out to more moderate forces of Lukashenka's regime.

Polish MEP Jacek Protasiewicz believes the EU pressure is working.
"The EU need [to] intensify work with [the] opposition in Belarus and we are doing it, but on the other hand it would be useful to find contact with moderate politicians in Minsk and other Belarusian cities and villages of the current regime," Paleckis said, "because some of them also want to see reforms and they want to see the change of the regime."

Tunne Kelam, an Estonian MEP, suggested a more personal engagement by his fellow colleagues to help Belarusian political prisoners.

"Members of parliament can do something personally to support Belarusian political prisoners on the third level," Kelam said. "You can adopt a concrete [specific] political prisoner, send him or her a postcard, and take some sort of responsibility and interest in their fate."

Neil Jarman, the special rapporteur of the Committee on International Control over the Human Rights Situation in Belarus, addressed the committee and urged the EU to continue to pile pressure on the regime in Minsk.

"Once the genie is out of the bottle which happened on December 19, once people came out on the street, it is very difficult to force them back into the situation of fear and failing to react," Jarman said. "There does appear to ongoing resistance, ongoing protest, ongoing objections. I think that the EU could build on that situation."
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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