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EU: Diplomat Says Visa Ban On Belarusian Officials Likely To Be Imposed

By Ahto Lobjakas

A high-ranking EU diplomat has told RFE/RL that European Union foreign ministers will impose a visa ban on 31 top Belarusian officials when they meet in Luxembourg on April 10. The list will be topped by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and will include members of the Belarusian leadership believed to be involved in electoral fraud during the country's March 19 presidential election and in the subsequent crackdown on opposition supporters. The list is shorter than many had hoped, but EU officials say it could be extended and other sanctions added if the authorities in Minsk do not heed the EU's demands.

BRUSSELS, April 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Although Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich, backed by mostly eastern member states of the EU, had asked for "hundreds" of Belarusian officials to be targeted in a visa ban, the bloc has at this stage limited itself to selecting 31, according to an EU diplomat involved in the negotiations.

The senior diplomat, who discussed the list with RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said the length of the list was a major sticking point among EU ambassadors as they discussed it. Poland and Lithuania led a bloc of eastern and northern member states calling for a longer list, while Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg urged caution, according to the source.

By the end of this week, the diplomat said, there was "consensus" on 31 names. These include Lukashenka, key members of his administration, a number of ministers -- but not the foreign minister -- the leadership of the country's KGB, some deputies of the parliament, judges, and heads of local election commissions.

The list also names, according to the diplomat, "a number of ideological figureheads who might lay claim to being journalists."

Commission Still Watching Belarus

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin told RFE/RL today that the list of Belarusian officials to be banned from entering the EU could be extended, if repressions continue.

"A decision will be taken on Monday [April 10], but we continue to watch the conduct of the Belarusian authorities, and there still a very large number of people in detention, for example," she said. "Now, we wanted to watch very closely the elections [that] we have done and there will be a response on Monday, but we continue to watch what goes on in Belarus."

The European Commission appears to support the cautious wing of EU member states hoping to retain some influence on the authorities in Minsk.

EU foreign ministers are expected to adopt a statement on April 10 condemning the election as neither free nor fair, and also denouncing violence and arrests carried out by the authorities during the protests that followed the vote.

The diplomat told RFE/RL that the statement says Minsk must free all political opponents it has imprisoned and respect its citizens' freedom of expression and assembly.

The ministers will also condemn the "arrest, beatings, and humiliating treatment in detention" of EU citizens during and after the election, according to the source. The statement also calls for "other countries" to take action against Lukashenka's administration.

The high-ranking diplomat also said EU and U.S. diplomats will in the coming days jointly ask the Russian government -- which has approved of the way the Belarusian elections were conducted – to join them in their condemnation of the poll and the violence that followed.

EU Divisions On Sanctions

RFE/RL's source said there was no unanimity among EU member states at this stage about any possible further sanctions.

Commission spokeswoman Udwin today appeared to be ruling out calls made, in particular by Poland and Lithuania, to apply "smart economic" sanctions -- such as banning the export of some luxury goods to Belarus. She said the EU does not want in any way to "blur the message" that it is targeting the country's leaders, and not its people.

"I think it is important, particularly when you're dealing with a country like Belarus where the population does not have access to very much independent information, that we make sure that our messages are as clear and unmistakable as possible, and that when we say that action is being taken because of elections that were less than free and fair, that that is what the population understands has happened," Udwin said.

The EU diplomat also says the foreign ministers will not heed proposals to urge the holding of new elections or to not recognize Lukashenka's presidential victory. Both calls were made by the European Parliament in a resolution on April 6.
An asset freeze affecting the officials on the EU visa-ban list is thought likely at some later stage, however. But first, the source says, the bloc's lawyers fear it could be challenged in the European Court of Justice. The efficacy of such a measure is also doubted, as top Belarusian officials may easily have used false names to open whatever bank accounts they have, or make them accessible by people not likely to be targeted by the EU.

Many EU member states have shown willingness to provide Belarusian students with scholarships to enable them to continue their studies abroad.

The EU diplomat told RFE/RL that an EU decision to raise visa fees from 35 to 60 euros ($42-$73), expected in late April, is likely to contain provisions for exemptions that could be used to make visas for Belarusians cheaper or completely free of charge.

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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