News & Analysis

EU’s credibility threatened by delay over Belarus sanctions

More than six weeks on from a rigged presidential election in Belarus, in which Alexander Lukashenko implausibly claims to have won a new term in office with more than 80 per cent of the vote, the European Union has yet to reach agreement on sanctions against Mr Lukashenko and leading members of his regime.

The delay, according to the EU’s foreign policy chief, threatens to damage the bloc’s credibility.

Speaking after a meeting of EU foreign ministers on September 21, Josep Borrell (pictured above) told reporters that “although there is a clear will to adopt sanctions, it was not possible to do that today because the required unanimity was not reached. Cyprus is missing.”

Prior to the meeting, Belarusian opposition leader – and by objective measure the winner of the August 9 election – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya appealed to members of the Foreign Affairs Council to “be more brave” and call for fresh election in the eastern European country.

“We did a lot to manage with this situation by ourselves, with only the strength of the Belarusian people, but now I understand that we need exterior help,” she said.

She added that “sanctions are very important in our fight” to pressure the government and urged reluctant member states to be “more brave”.

Speaking to the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Tikhanovskaya showed MEPs a photograph of a man with large bruises and bloody scars on his back, telling them that peaceful protesters had been “tortured, harassed and raped [and] some of them were killed” in state prisons.

The European Commission has drawn up a list of 40 Belarusian officials who would face asset freezes and travel bans over their role in rigging the presidential elections and the subsequent crackdown on protests. The list does not, however, include Mr Lukashenko, despite calls from the European Parliament to include him. Mr Borrell has said that Lukashenko’s inclusion was “still being discussed”.

Cyprus is continuing to block sanctions until similar measures are introduced against Turkey for its energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. EU leaders are now expected to try to break the deadlock when they meet in Brussels on September 24.

Latvia’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, has described Nicosia’s position as “hostage-taking” and said that it “sends a wrong signal to Belarusians, our societies and the whole world”.

Mr Rinkēvičs’s words were echoed by his Lithuanian counterpart, Linas Linkevicius.

“Today’s failure to agree on sanctions in support of Belarusians, suffering and fighting for democracy, undermines the credibility of the democratic values they are fighting for. Some colleagues should not link things that must not be linked. Lithuania will continue to insist on substantial actions,” he said.

Belarusians were once again out on the streets of the capital Minsk and other cities across the country in large numbers on September 20, protesting against Mr Lukashenko and the brutal way in which his security forces have attempted to put an end to the demonstrations.

People holding red and white protest flags gathered at a new “March of Justice” that occupied the whole of a central avenue as it proceeded towards the heavily guarded Palace of Independence, where Mr Lukashenko has his offices. They held placards with slogans such as “Cowards beat up women” and “Get out!”. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, including women. The number of political prisoners in the country is now believed to be in the thousands.

The previous evening, anonymous hackers leaked the personal data of more than 1,000 Belarusian police officers in retaliation for the crackdown on street demonstrations.

“As the arrests continue, we will continue to publish data on a massive scale,” said a statement distributed by the opposition news channel Nexta Live on the messaging app Telegram. “No one will remain anonymous, even under a balaclava.”

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