Foreign ministers step up rhetoric against Belarus

  • @jerometaylor

Belarus has been turned into a country “driven by fear” and is run by a dictator who has lost the legitimacy to rule his own people according to a damning joint statement from the foreign ministers of Britain, Sweden, Germany and Poland published exclusively in The Independent.

The joint letter – which is signed by Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague, Germany's Guido Westervelle, Sweden's Carl Bildt and Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski – is a stinging critique of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and represents a significantly more confrontational stance by Europe towards the continent's last dictatorship.

The foreign ministers say they will push for further sanctions against the Belarusian regime which is currently in the middle of a brutal crackdown against pro-democracy dissidents and protesters. The timing of the letter is significant. One year ago today [MON], riot police marched on tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered in Minsk following last year's disputed presidential elections and beat them remorselessly.

Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned including virtually all those who had dared to run against Mr Lukashenko in the elections which were dismissed by independent observers as falling far short of international standards. While Europe has been condemnatory of the crackdown, its response has largely rested on increasing the number of Belarusian officials placed on its travel ban list – something many opposition figures say has been ineffective.

Now Britain, Sweden, Germany and Poland will lobby for much tougher sanctions including going after the finances of anyone involved in human rights abuses.

“In the face of Lukashenko’s continuing repression against his own people, we have no choice but to argue for a strengthening of EU policy towards Belarus, both in terms of the sanctions regime, and in terms of EU support for Belarusian civil society,” the statement reads. “We will push for harsher EU sanctions, targeted at those responsible for serious human rights abuses and those who back the regime financially – not ordinary Belarusians.”

The foreign ministers say Mr Lukashenko's “crass and selfish” policies has led to economic crisis in his country, which is desperately in debt and has seen a significant decline in living standards over the last nine months.

In condemning Mr Lukashenko's human rights record they write: “Belarus is reduced to a country driven by fear. Brave individuals are suffering inhumane treatment in prison because they refuse to give in to attempts to make them ‘confess’ to crimes they have not committed.”

Individuals named by the foreign secretaries as prisoners of conscience include political dissidents Andrei Sannikov, Mikalai Statkevich, Zmitser Daskevich and Dzmitry Bandarenka. They also lament the recent jailing of prominent human rights activist Ales Byalyatski on “trumped up tax evasion charges”.

The joint statement comes just days after the Foreign Office held secret talks with Belarusian opposition candidates, as revealed in The Independent. The dissidents called for greater and more unified action from Europe to halt what they described as a human rights tragedy happening on their doorstep.

Letters: Belarus and human rights