The European Union passed a series of stringent sanctions against Belarus this morning amid growing anger from the international community over the former Soviet republic’s increasingly pariah status.
Scores of political opponents of President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime have been imprisoned in what is one of the worst human rights crackdowns in recent memory.
Foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed to a series of new sanctions against the regime, placing travel bans on key members of the judiciary and bringing in restrictions on three companies closely associated with Mr Lukashenko.
Ministers hope that the financial sanctions will pile pressure on Minsk at a time when Belarus’ economy is rapidly failing as its currency reserves dry up.
The Independent understands that opposition to widespread sanctions came from Italy and Latvia, two countries with substantial business interests in Belarus. In the end, however, diplomats opted for the fullest set if sanctions that were available to them.
It is now forbidden for any European country to trade with BelTechExport, the country’s main arms manufacturer, as well as Sport Pari, which runs the country’s lucrative lottery, and Private Unitary Enterprise a telecommunications company.
Western diplomats say Belarus earns more than £1.14bn annually in weapons sales, much of which goes into a secret fund controlled by the President. The vast majority of Belarusian arms sales, however, are to the developing world and it is unclear whether the new sanctions will have any effect on Mr Lukashenko’s ability to raise capital.
A number of officials behind the recent trials of pro-democracy activists have also been added to a travel ban list including Andrey Kazheunikau and Kiril Chubkavets, two public prosecutors who have brought cases against a number of anti-Lukashenko presidential candidates.
Liudmila Grachova, a judge who recently sentenced former presidential candidates Nikolai Statkevich and Dmitiri Uss, has also been handed a travel ban alongside Vladimir Peftiev, the country’s second richest man and a key economic advisor to Mr Lukashenko.
More than one hundred officials and allies of the Belarusian president are already on the travel list.
But it is believed financial sanctions targeting a regime in a country where 80% of industry is still state owned will likely be much more effective and trying to instigate political reform.
With Europe throwing its weight behind economic sanctions, Minsk is more reliant than ever on support from Russia but there are growing signs that even Moscow is losing patience with its traditional ally.
Last week Belarus went to Russia and the International Monetary Fund to ask for a rescue loan of billions of dollars to help stave off a growing financial crisis. Both Russia and the IMF have called for large scale privatization of Belarusian state assets as a central part of any bailout arrangement. At the same time anger is growing in Moscow over the arrest of a number of Russian journalists inside Belarus.
Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, called on ministers to ensure that any future deals to bring Belarus in from the cold are not done without major political reform including the release of all political opponents. “Lukashenko may try to fool the EU with empty promises of reform as his country’s economy worsens, but there must be no deal as long as his people’s rights are denied and his jails still hold prisoners of conscience,” he said.
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