EU Ministers Agree On Belarus Sanctions, OSCE Offers To Mediate
By RFE/RL's Belarus Service August 28, 2020
European Union foreign ministers have agreed to impose sanctions on up to 20 senior Belarusian officials suspected of involvement in election fraud and a brutal crackdown against protesters since the country's disputed August 9 presidential election.
EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Berlin on August 28 did not rule out that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will at some point be among those named on the sanctions list if the country doesn't cease human rights violations.
Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) offered on August 28 to mediate between Lukashenka's government and opposition leaders who charge that the presidential election was rigged in favor of Lukashenka.
Belarus's authoritarian president has faced nearly three weeks of unprecedented protests since the election gave him a landslide victory. More than 7,000 people have been detained, hundreds injured, and at least three killed. More large-scale protests are planned over the weekend.
"We need to send a signal," Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told RFE/RL after the meeting in Berlin, adding that sanctions against 20 individuals would not be enough. "But then even if we start by a smaller number…we keep the option open that we can add more names if things get worse."
EU diplomats are not naming who may be put on the sanctions list, saying every step will follow legal and formal procedures.
'High Political Level'
Asked if Lukashenka is on the list, Sweden's foreign minister said that EU diplomats are using the term "high political level" to describe who the sanctions will target.
"Our wording is 'high political level,'" Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde told RFE/RL. "We have also decided to have an option to gradually expand the list in the future."
The EU foreign ministers were seeking in Berlin to gain political endorsements for a proposed sanctions list. Their agreement on the list allows for formal approval of EU sanctions against targeted individuals.
Western countries are trying to find a political solution to end the crisis in Belarus, which has raised concerns Lukashenka will unleash a bloody crackdown or Russia may intervene in the event of instability in its neighbor.
Linde is also the incoming OSCE chair as Sweden prepares to lead the regional security organization at the beginning of next year.
Current OSCE chair, Albanian Foreign Minister Edi Rama, told a special session of the Vienna-based body on August 28 that the situation is "deeply alarming" as he urged Belarus to allow a delegation to visit the country.
In a letter to Belarus earlier this month, Rama offered the OSCE's help to mediate in the crisis.
Linde told RFE/RL that there was political support for an OSCE visit to Belarus to support an open and constructive dialogue in the country.
"There is almost a uniform backing for the initiative by the current and the next chairs of OSCE -- in other words Albania and Sweden -- to try to arrange a visit to Minsk in order to facilitate a dialogue between the opposition and the regime," Linde said.
As an OSCE participating state, Belarus has committed "to holding genuinely democratic elections and to upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms," EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell and Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said in a joint statement.
Lukashenka has accused the West of waging a "diplomatic war" against Belarus, claiming that Western powers are seeking to foment a "color revolution." He also put the military on high alert, using the army to intimidate protesters while accusing NATO of amassing forces near the Belarus-Poland border in recent weeks. The alliance has denied it poses any threat.
The authoritarian president continued his tirades against the West on August 28, trying to tie his own fate as Belarus's ruler to Russia's security.
"Belarus is just a springboard to Russia, as always," he said.
"Unlike Hitler, who sent his army to Moscow, they are trying to destroy the government in place here and replace it with a new one that will ask another country for military assistance and deploy troops."
Russia, a historical ally that wields some influence over Minsk through financial and political levers, has warned the EU and the United States against interfering in Belarusian affairs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a state television interview broadcast on August 27 that Russia has prepared a force of reserve law enforcement officers who could be sent into Belarus to stop the protests.
He said the Russian security force would be used only if the situation gets out of control, "if extremists, hiding behind political slogans, cross certain boundaries and start looting, setting fire to cars, homes, banks, attempting to seize administrative buildings, and so on."
In response, European leaders and the United States warned Russia against intervening in Belarus.
"I have heard many times from Russia the mantra that this is a domestic internal affair for Belarus and they do not want external interference. I suppose it's also valid for themselves," EU foreign affairs high representative Borrell said.
"It is solely for the Belarusian people to determine their own future," he added, urging Russia to "respect the wishes and democratic choices of the Belarusian people."
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on August 28 said in a statement that it is "clear to the world" that the recent presidential election in Belarus was "fraudulent."
"This is not a contest between East and West, and certainly not a contest between Russia and the United States," Biegun tweeted. "This is a battle between a ruler and his own people."
Asked about the statements from Russia, Latvia's Foreign Minister Rinkevics told RFE/RL that it would be a "huge mistake" for Russia to intervene militarily in Belarus.
"I think that would be a huge mistake from their own (Russia's) perspective, because in that case, they would actually alienate many of the Belarusian people," he said.
Linde said it is important to realize that there isn't anti-Russian sentiment in Belarus.
"The opposition is -- on the contrary -- saying that they want to maintain good relations with Russia," the Swedish foreign minister said.
Deploying Russian forces to Belarus would be a mistake, said Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the self-exiled former presidential candidate who has become an unlikely leader of the Belarusian opposition.
"This is our internal problem, an internal issue that Belarusians must resolve with the Belarusian government," Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL.
Tsikhanouskaya spoke with RFE/RL on August 28 from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, where she fled amid threats to her family.
With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Berlin, RFE/RL's Belarus Service, Current Time, Reuters, AP, TASS, Interfax, dpa, AFP, and Tut.by
Copyright (c) 2020. 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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