Belarus, Europe’s most authoritarian regime, embarked on a collision course with the rest of Europe on Tuesday when it expelled Polish and EU ambassadors and recalled its envoys from Brussels and Warsaw, in protest over sanctions.
The regime of Alexander Lukashenko responded with characteristic robustness to a decision by EU foreign ministers to extend sanctions against scores of Belarus politicians and officials. Those targeted had been identified as playing a role in crushing dissent, jailing opposition activists and trampling on civil liberties.
“Dictator starts burning the last bridges. Normally does not end well,” tweeted the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, who, along with his Polish counterpart, Radek Sikorski, has been the most ardent advocate of an EU hard line on Minsk. Poland was targeted for retaliation by Lukashenko because it has sought to focus EU foreign policy on Belarus and Ukraine, its eastern neighbours.
The EU foreign ministers blacklisted a further 21 Belarus officials. These consisted mainly of judges and police officers for their role in repression, bringing the blacklist total to more than 200. They are subject to a visa ban and are not permitted to travel to the EU. In addition, any assets they have in the EU are frozen.
A prominent Belarus oligarch and football club owner viewed as a financier of the regime, however, was kept off the blacklist. This was at the insistence of Slovenia where a local business has won lucrative contracts for building a luxury hotel in Minsk. “It is sad for the EU [that] economic interests of one member are more important than the need to influence the Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners,” Sikorski said.
The EU’s sanctions regime has been phased in since rigged elections occurred more than a year ago. During the elections several opposition rivals of Lukashenko were arrested and jailed. A further 600 people were arrested for protesting about the election fraud. “Pressure and sanctions are unacceptable,” said the Belarus foreign ministry.
Russia’s outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, last week joined Lukashenko in protesting at the EU sanctions against Belarus.