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Belarus: EU Divided On Retaliation For Flawed Poll

By Ahto Lobjakas

The foreign ministers of the European Union member-states were quick to dismiss as undemocratic Belarus's presidential poll on March 19. But they have been slower in deciding what step to take next. Some EU states in Eastern Europe want prompt and decisive action taken against Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime. But Germany led others in calling for a more measured approach. A decision is not likely to come before April 10, when the ministers are due to meet next.

BRUSSELS, March 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana on March 20 endorsed a damning report on Belarus released by election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 
"What we have seen [on] television last night and the results that have come out from the OSCE speak for themselves," Solana said. "We would like to continue being engaged with the people of Belarus, and continue being firm with the leaders of Belarus so that they really accept to move on to being a democratic country."
EU foreign ministers have threatened Belarus with so-called "restrictive measures" twice, in November 2005 and again in January 2006. This was interpreted to mean probably sanctions against those Belarusian officials considered responsible to violations of democratic standards.
Near Neighbors: Be Tough
According to some diplomats in Brussels, however, a number of EU member-states are asking for harsher measures.
One EU source told RFE/RL that Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic were among those pushing hard for tough EU action.
Lithuania said the EU should contest the legitimacy of the election result. Slovakia wanted an EU statement denying Lukashenka recognition as the winner of the poll.
Poland asked for sweeping visa bans and the freezing of assets of officials responsible for violations, as well as targeted economic sanctions.
Czech officials suggested opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich -- who officially finished nearly 77 percentage points behind Lukashenka -- should be invited to attend the EU summit in Brussels later this week.
But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeyer argued that a hasty and ill-considered reaction could damage the EU's future options regarding Belarus.
Dialogue To Continue
Most member states acknowledge the EU has no choice but to continue seeking dialogue with Lukashenka.  They also agree that whatever sanctions the EU may decide to pursue must affect only officials of the president's regime, and not the Belarusian people as a whole.
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, representing the current EU presidency, sharply criticized the conduct of the Belarusian elections. But she said more time is needed to develop a suitable response.
"The point, the central aim, is to find an adequate response in that situation and make clear our misgivings about the way democracy is being treated in Belarus, while at the same time keeping our contacts, our encouragement and our support for the people of Belarus," said Plassnik.
A Travel Ban For Lukashenka?
Plassnik said it now fell to the member-states to discuss a number of suggestions made regarding Belarus. She declined to say if a current EU visa ban should be extended to include Lukashenka.
Brussels currently bars six Belarusian officials, among them the minister of the interior and the head of the country's Central Election Commission, from entering EU territory.
Lukashenka's name is not on the list. One high-ranking EU source told RFE/RL the Belarusian president had very recently visited Slovenia for a skiing holiday.
One diplomat in Brussels noted that those EU member states that enjoy good ties with Russia may first want to gauge Moscow's reaction to possible measures against Belarus before proceeding with a decision.

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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