Belarus left isolated as EU nations withdraw ambassadors


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The Independent Online

The regime of Alexander Lukashenko is looking increasingly isolated today after European Union nations took the extraordinary step of jointly withdrawing all their ambassadors from Belarus.

The surprise diplomatic move came in response to yesterday's expulsion of the EU and Polish ambassadors in Minsk. They were thrown out of the country after Brussels placed a further 21 Belarusian officials on its ever expanding sanctions list which forbids key regime leaders from travelling to Europe.

Belarus attacked the mass pull out describing it as a “path into deadlock” amid concerns that Minsk will now be pushed further towards its uneasy ally Russia which is keen to reassert influence on its western neighbour and buy up Belarusian state assets on the cheap.

European officials were already exasperated by the Mr Lukashenko’s ongoing persecution of opposition politicians but the expulsion of the Polish and EU ambassador was the final straw.

One diplomatic source told The Independent: “The latest round of sanctions clearly hurt the Belarusians otherwise they wouldn’t have acted the way they did. While there are still political prisoners languishing in Belarusian jails there will be more sanctions to come.”

Foreign secretary William Hague said the mass pullout was “in solidarity” with the Polish and EU ambassadors after they were expelled.

“The UK, together with its EU partners, has consistently made clear to Belarus that the EU would continue to impose further sanctions as long as political prisoners remained in place and the repression of civil society continued,” he said. “I regret that there have been no positive developments in this respect and that, instead, the repression has continued unabated and further political prisoners have been detained.”

Meanwhile Belarus’ ambassador in London Aleksandr Mikhnevich was summoned to appear at the Foreign Office.

The move represents a major low point in relations between Belarus and Europe following more than a year of brutal repression against pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians in a state that is often dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship. Hundreds have been arrested, imprisoned and tortured since protests broke out in December 2010 against Mr Lukashenko's re-election in a vote that had been widely dismissed by international observers as fraudulent.

Most of the new names added to the sanctions list are police officials and judges that have taken part in the arrest and prosecution of key opposition activists.

“The bans upset them,” explained one European diplomatic official. “They can’t go shopping in London. They can’t go stay in their luxury Paris flats at the weekends.”

There were plans to place Belarusian oligarch Yury Chizh – a key financial supporter of the Lukashenko regime – on the sanctions list but the move was blocked by Slovenia. Mr Chizh is currently building an enormous hotel complex  with a Slovenian company contracted to do much of the work. The Kempinski Hotel is being built in preparation for the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, an event which has been trumpeted by Mr Lukashenko who is a committed ice hockey fan.

Polish foreign minister Radoslav Sikorski expressed his anger that Slovenia had blocked the addition of Mr Chizh.

"It showed that the economic interests of one state turned out to be more important than the need to influence President Lukashenka's power to release political prisoners," he said "[I] hope guests [at] the Kempinski [Hotel in] Minsk will spare a thought for the Belarus[ian] political prisoners who rot in jail so that they are comfortable."

Poland has taken the strongest lead against the ongoing repression in Belarus, hosting broadcasting stations for opposition forces and giving asylum to a number of exiled figures.

It is likely that the diplomatic isolation of Belarus by Europe will now push Minsk further into the arms of Russia. Historically Moscow has had a somewhat testy relationship with Minsk. For years it was willing to turn a blind eye to Lukashenko’s excesses in return for his loyalty towards Moscow. But in recent years Moscow has become increasingly critical. However in a signal the relations might be warming once more, earlier today Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin criticised the EU’s latest sanctions calling them “unacceptable”.