BRUSSELS – Reacting to the arrest last month of a young opposition journalist, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada joined forces on Monday to impose new sanctions on the government of the Belarusian President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko for his human rights violations.
“We are united in our deep concern over the Lukashenko regime’s continued attacks on human rights, fundamental freedoms and international law,” the four said in a statement. joint statement.
“We pledge to support the long suppressed democratic aspirations of the Belarusian people, and we unite to make the regime pay the price for its blatant disregard for international commitments,” they said.
They called on Mr. Lukashenko to release all political prisoners and to âengage in a comprehensive and genuine political dialogueâ with the democratic opposition and civil society.
The European Union’s foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, also voted on Monday to hit important parts of the Belarusian economy – banking, oil and tobacco and, in particular, the potash industry – this which represents an effort to broaden sanctions by penalizing organizations rather than just those responsible. for repression. These sectoral sanctions are expected to be confirmed by European heads of state and government who will meet later this week.
The coordinated move did not involve identical sanctions, but rather was intended to have a greater impact on Mr Lukashenko by showing a united front.
“We will approve the new sanctions package, which is a larger package,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, head of European Union foreign policy. He said 86 people and organizations would be targeted by a travel ban to the European Union and asset freezes.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday is considered by several countries as a state hijacking demanded by its president, the strongman, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians faced brutal police repression when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments have ridiculed as a sham.
- Forced landing of the plane. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was rerouted to Minsk in an attempt to arrest 26-year-old dissident journalist Roman Protasevich.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Protasevich confessed to helping organize “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
Thus, in total, some 166 people and 15 entities in Belarus are now under EU sanctions.
âWe didn’t use economic sanctions in the beginning because we know they affect everyone, because they affect the economy,â Borrell said. But he also said Brussels was prepared for a fifth round of sanctions if needed.
The Europeans have imposed previous rounds of sanctions after Mr Lukashenko claimed victory in a re-election in an August election widely seen as fraudulent, then crushed a popular uprising. But the latest wave was sparked by the arrest of Roman Protasevich, a young dissident journalist who played a central role in reporting and coordinating last year’s protests.
Mr Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested on May 23 after the Belarusian government forced an airliner flying between Greece and Lithuania, two EU member states European, to land in Minsk, claiming that there was a bomb on board.
Since his arrest, Mr Protasevich – visibly bruised, despite heavy makeup – has been heard and seen in tapes and at press conferences in which he congratulated Mr Lukashenko in a dull voice.
The sanctions list includes judges and prosecutors who were involved in the sentencing of the protesters; members of parliament and the government; and law enforcement officials and business leaders associated with government.
On Monday morning, the foreign ministers and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarusian opposition leader, met for breakfast. After this meeting, Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, made it clear that the European Union would take a broader approach and not just impose sanctions on individuals.
The bloc will now, he said, “get down to work on the economic fields which are of particular importance for Belarus and for the regime’s revenues”.
Mr Maas said the 27 member states were united on the new sanctions. “We want to say very, very clearly to Lukashenko that there is no going back,” he said.
Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, lobbied for sanctions on potash exports, calling them crucial.
âThe key word, I think, is ‘potash’,â he said. “We know Belarus produces a lot of potash – it’s one of the biggest suppliers in the world – and I think it would hurt Lukashenko a lot if we run something in this area.”
Potash exports, important for fertilizers, are a major source of foreign exchange for Belarus; state-owned Belaruskali company says it produces 20 percent of the world’s supply.
The EU’s statistics agency said the bloc imported $ 1.5 billion in chemicals, including potash, from Belarus last year, as well as more than $ 1.2 billion. crude oil and related products such as fuel and lubricants.
Sanctions against the financial sector will include bans on new lending, investment by European Union investors seeking to trade securities or buy short-term Belarusian bonds, and investment services of bloc banks. EU export credits will also end.
Austria, which has significant banking interests in Belarus through Bank Raiffeisen, had opposed the financial sanctions, insisting they did not harm ordinary Belarusians, but ultimately agreed.
“With this agreement, the EU sends a clear and targeted signal against the unbearable acts of repression by the Belarusian regime,” the Austrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
Since last year, the European Union has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarusian citizens, including Lukashenko. After the hijacking, the European Union banned Belarusian airlines from its airspace and asked European airlines not to fly over Belarus.
There have been few signs, however, that the sanctions have changed the policies or behavior of Mr. Lukashenko’s government.
Asked Monday morning what these sanctions are expected to accomplish, Mr Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, said the new sanctions would increase the pressure for change.
âSanctions are a way to put pressure on the Belarusian government,â he said. âAnd these will seriously harm the economy of Belarus. What do you expect when you punish something? To change their behavior.
Separately, on Monday, European leaders renewed sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol to Ukraine, extending them by one year.