Divided EU Foreign Ministers Discuss Wider Belarus Sanctions
By Rikard Jozwiak
BRUSSELS -- The European Union is struggling to find agreement among member states on whether to impose tougher, targeted economic sanctions on Belarus over a postelection crackdown on the opposition.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg are discussing the possibility of introducing economic restrictions on Belarusian companies linked to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.
But EU member states are divided over the merits of such measures and are unlikely to reach any consensus this month.
Maja Kocijancic, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told RFE/RL ahead of the gathering that economic sanctions "remain an option" but noted that no concrete decision was imminent.
"The foreign ministers will take stock of the latest developments on the ground or rather the situation that has not improved," Kocijancic said, "and we have said in the past that we will continue to monitor the situation very closely to reform our position but also look into the possibility of further measures to be taken."
Travel Bans, Asset Freezes
The EU slapped travel bans and asset freezes on Lukashenka and up to 170 of his closest political allies after Belarus arrested several members of the opposition as well as scores of demonstrators who came out in the streets to protest Lukashenka's disputed reelection on December 19.
The United States imposed similar measures but also introduced economic sanctions on entities linked to the regime, a move that Brussels has been "considering” depending on the developments in Belarus.
Several countries -- led by the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Sweden -- have long pushed for the EU to impose targeted economic sanctions, noting that political prisoners still remain locked up.
Minsk's decision to shut down the Belarusian office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has drawn further ire in the West, with the EU calling the move "regrettable," underlining in a statement that it remains "utterly convinced" of the need for a meaningful OSCE presence in Belarus.
Despite the lack of improvement in Belarus, Ashton's office has been "reluctant to move any further at the moment,” according to a national diplomat speaking to RFE/RL, who noted that the lack of consensus among member states has made any further moves difficult.
A group of countries dubbed by a council source as the "usual suspects” has for now refused to consider any further sanctions on Belarus. Led by Italy and Greece, but also consisting of new EU member states such as Latvia, these countries are adamant that economic measures directed at Belarusian companies would have a negative impact on ordinary people in the country.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Slovak Foreign Minister Mikulas Dzurinda dismissed this sort of argument by referring to his experience as an opposition figure during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the role played by Western powers.
He said he and his fellow dissidents took heart from the "very tough, very clear position" of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
Rather than pushing down the people of Belarus, Dzurinda said stronger measures would embolden them.
"Tough, strong, principled position is the basis for a potential change in Belarus," he said. "So I believe that the stronger we are against the regime of Lukashenska, the higher is the hope for ordinary people.”
Instead of agreeing on which enterprises close to the regime will be targeted, the foreign ministers will instead have a general discussion on Belarus behind closed doors over lunch. An EU diplomat told RFE/RL that there would be "frank and open talks" among the ministers and that there might be "some very harsh words flying across the table” between the two camps.
'Not So Easy To Agree'
Jan Tombinski, Poland's EU ambassador, told RFE/RL that such a delicate matter as targeted economic sanctions takes time to agree on in a union consisting of so many countries.
"It is 27 countries around the table," he said, "and it is not so easy to agree. And everybody is analyzing such a measure because it is a tough measure.”
The EU foreign ministers will also discuss the situation in the South Caucasus during their meeting today. Several new EU member states have expressed concern that the situation in the region has slipped off the EU's radar in the wake of the uprisings in the Arab world.
The EU's diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, will in the coming weeks prepare a paper on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. A top EU diplomat told RFE/RL that the EU is "very worried" about a heating up of the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, noting that the government in Baku has spent "a lot of the windfall from gas exports on arming up." The diplomat did, however, admit that the EU "still has very little, if any, leverage in the region."
Copyright (c) 2011. 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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