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EU Ministers Remain Divided Over Wider Belarus Sanctions


Riot police break up postelection protests in downtown Minsk on December 19.
European Union member states have failed to reach agreement on whether to impose tougher, targeted economic sanctions on Belarus over a postelection crackdown on the opposition.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg discussed the possibility of introducing restrictions on Belarusian companies linked to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.

But members remain divided over the merits of such measures and are unlikely to reach any consensus this month.

Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL ahead of the April 12 meeting that economic sanctions "remain an option” and that the "EU stand ready to adopt more sanctions" but noted that no concrete decision was imminent.

"The foreign ministers will take stock of the latest development on the ground or rather the situation that has not improved and we have said in the past that we will continue to monitor the situation very closely to reform our position but also look into the possibility of further measures to be taken," Kocijancic said.

Travel Bans, Asset Freezes

The EU slapped travel bans and asset freezes on Lukashenka and up to 170 of his closest political allies after Belarus arrested several members of the opposition as well as scores of demonstrators who came out in the streets to protest Lukashenka's disputed reelection on December 19 and subsequently.

The United States imposed similar measures but also introduced economic sanctions on entities linked to the regime, a move that Brussels has been "considering" depending on the developments in Belarus.

Belarus President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at his inauguration ceremony in Minsk on January 21.

Several countries -- led by the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Sweden -- have long pushed for the EU to impose targeted economic sanctions, noting that political prisoners still remain locked up.

Minsk's decision to shut down the Belarusian office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has drawn further ire in the West with the EU calling the move "regrettable," underlining in a statement that the EU remains "utterly convinced" of the need for a meaningful OSCE presence in Belarus.

Despite the lack of improvement in Belarus, Ashton's office has been "reluctant to move any further at the moment," according to a national diplomat speaking to RFE/RL, who noted that the lack of consensus among member states has made any further moves difficult.

'Usual Suspects'

A group of countries dubbed by a council source as the "usual suspects," has for now refused to consider any further sanctions on Belarus. Led by Italy and Greece, but also consisting of new EU member states such as Latvia, these countries are adamant that economic measures directed at Belarusian companies would have a negative impact on ordinary people in the country.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Slovak Foreign Minister Mikulas Dzurinda dismissed this sort of argument by referring to his experience as an opposition figure during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the role played by Western powers.

He said he and his fellow dissidents took heart from the "very tough, very clear position" of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Rather than pushing down the people of Belarus, Dzurinda says stronger measures would embolden them.

"Tough, strong, principled position is the basis for a potential change in Belarus," Dzurinda said. "So I believe that the stronger we are against the regime of Lukashenska, the higher is the hope for ordinary people."

The foreign ministers had a general discussion on Belarus behind closed doors over lunch. An EU diplomat told the RFE/RL that very "frank and open talks" took place among the ministers but that "no new concrete measures could be adopted."

'Not So Easy To Agree'

Jan Tombinski, Poland's EU ambassador, told RFE/RL that such a delicate matter as targeted economic sanctions takes time to agree on in a union consisting of so many countries.

"It is 27 countries around the table and it is not so easy to agree and everybody is analyzing such a measure, because it is a tough measure," Tombinski said.

The EU foreign ministers were also supposed to discuss the situation in the south Caucasus during their meeting but the agenda item was moved to the next council meeting in May. Several new EU member states have expressed concern that the situation in the region has slipped off the EU radar in the wake of the uprisings in the Arab world.

The EU's diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, will in the coming weeks prepare a paper on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. A top EU diplomat told RFE/RL that the bloc is "very worried" about a heating up of the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, noting that the government in Baku has spent "a lot of the windfall from gas exports on arming up." The diplomat conceded that the EU "still has very little, if any, leverage in the region."

During its meeting, EU foreign ministers also added to its Libya sanctions list 26 energy firms.
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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.