EU agrees to new sanctions to ‘tighten wing screws’ against Belarus
EU countries have agreed to impose far-reaching new sanctions on Belarusian economic sectors and government officials as President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime increases its pressure on prominent dissidents.
European bloc foreign ministers on Monday took action against 86 other people and organizations and turned to sectors such as finance, potash and petroleum products. The United States, United Kingdom and Canada have also announced additional sanctions against Belarusian officials and entities as part of an initiative coordinated with Brussels to force the regime to “end its repressive practices. against his own people ”.
The planned EU economic sanctions, still awaiting finalization and legal approval, mark a milestone in targeting the authoritarian 27-year-old Lukashenko regime. They are a response to Minsk’s interception last month of a Ryanair flight to arrest blogger Roman Protasevich, as part of a crackdown on the opposition since last year’s presidential elections. Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, a student, was also arrested.
“We need to tighten the thumbscrews after this ruthless state air piracy,” Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters ahead of the meeting in Luxembourg where ministers agreed on sanctions. “We want to hit the state-affiliated economic sector, the officials, not the Belarusian people, who are suffering anyway.”
The EU has imposed asset freezes and travel bans on eight entities and 78 people in Belarus, including the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Transport. The bloc has already imposed similar measures against dozens of other officials, including Lukashenko.
The economic measures are designed to hit some of the main export sectors of this Eastern European country. The EU wants to stifle the Lukashenko regime’s funds, including through state-owned enterprises that dominate the Belarusian economy.
Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said the sanctions “would seriously damage Belarus’ economy”. Heiko Maas, German Foreign Minister, said the targeted areas were “of particular importance for Belarus and for the regime’s revenues.”
Belarus exported around € 4 billion in goods to the EU, its second largest trading partner after Russia, last year and imported just over € 6 billion, according to EU data. Its exports of petrochemicals and potash are a crucial source of hard currency for the Lukashenko regime, bringing in at least $ 6.6 billion in revenue in 2020.
Financial sanctions will limit the access of the country’s public institutions to EU capital markets, as well as loans from the EU’s European Investment Bank to official Belarusian companies, diplomats said. An exemption is proposed for private bank deposits, humanitarian transactions and certain local projects.
The proposed EU restriction package also covers the tobacco industry, officials added. It would ban exports of surveillance technology to Belarus and further expand an existing arms embargo, including a halt to shipments of sniper rifles used by biathletes.
EU diplomats insist the package was put together to maximize the damage to the regime and minimize the damage to the population. But many European officials privately acknowledge that the consequences will only become clear when the sanctions are implemented.
The EU package complies with the sanctions requested by the opposition movement in Belarus. Ministers hosted a breakfast on Monday with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate to challenge Lukashenko in last year’s elections.
Tsikhanouskaya showed the ministers a bullet which, she said, had been extracted from the lung of a young man shot during the demonstrations of last August and thanked them for being “united in their position on the situation in Belarus”.
Minsk remains unrepentant under pressure from the EU. Last week, officials transported Protasevich from Belarusian KGB prison to a press conference where the blogger, apparently under duress, spoke of his “unconditional” respect for Lukashenko.
On Monday, Belarus’ Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the trial of Viktor Babariko, a Russian-linked banker who was arrested for corruption after declaring his candidacy against Lukashenko last year.
Another prominent opponent, Tsikhanouskaya’s husband Siarhei Tsikhanousky, faces a closed-door hearing later this week along with several other dissidents, including prominent blogger Ihar Losik.
Tsikhanouskaya said she suspected the regime had decided to hold the hearing behind closed doors to prevent her husband and other participants from rallying the Belarusians against Lukashenko.
“[The regime] I don’t want people to see that these people are not broken, that they are as strong as them and that they don’t want them to inspire people, ”she told the Financial Times. last week.