Sergei Kuznetsov in Minsk -
A series of tit-for-tat moves following the latest EU sanctions on Belarus have culminated in a diplomatic crisis between Belarus and the EU. This will lead to new limitations on relations already virtually frozen in many areas and an opening for Russia under a new Vladimir Putin presidency.
Following the February 27 move by the EU Council to expand personal sanctions against Belarusian officials and include 20 judges and one representative of the Interior Ministry in the list of persons subject to the EU visa ban and asset freeze, late on February 28 the spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrei Savinykh said in a statement that the head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, Maira Mora, and Ambassador of Poland to Belarus Leszek Szerepka "have been advised to return to their capitals for consultations and to convey to their leadership a firm position of the Belarusian side on the inadmissibility of pressure and sanctions."
Belarus simultaneously recalled its Permanent Representative to the EU Andrei Evdochenko and Ambassador to Poland Viktor Gaisyonok to Minsk for consultations. "If the pressure on the Republic of Belarus persists, other measures will be taken to protect our interests. We hope that the authorities of the EU and its member states will realize that this path is flawed," Savinykh said, adding that Belarus would "ban from entering the country those persons from the EU member states who contributed to the introduction of the sanctions against Belarus."
In response to the recommendation of the Belarusian side that the Polish ambassador and the EU envoy should leave Belarus, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced the ambassadors of all of the EU member states were being recalled from Minsk. "Following the request by the Belarusian authorities that the Head of the EU Delegation in Minsk and the Ambassador of Poland to Belarus leave the country, I have decided, in coordination with [Polish] Foreign Minister Sikorski, that we will recall for consultations our two ambassadors."
"In an expression of solidarity and unity, it was agreed that the ambassadors of the EU member states in Minsk will all be withdrawn for consultations to their capitals. All EU member states will also summon Belarusian ambassadors to their foreign ministries," Ashton said.
The German ambassador was the first one to announce his leaving Belarus - even before Ashton's statement was published.
Relations between Belarus and the EU have been strained since the presidential election of December 2010, which the EU believed fell far short of democratic standards. Since that time, the EU has gradually increased pressure on Minsk by imposing sanctions on Belarusian officials and companies. By February 27, more than 200 officials had been included in the list of persons subject to sanctions. Also, sanctions were applied to three companies controlled by Belarusian tycoon Vladimir Peftiev, who the EU believes is closely connected with the regime.
Since the December 2010 election, Belarusian officials and President Alexander Lukashenko personally have accused the EU of providing assistance to the Belarusian opposition in a bid to destabilize the country. Poland and Germany, which had assumed the roles of mediators between the EU and Belarus before the election, have been criticized especially sharply. In 2011 alone, Lukashenko openly accused Germany and Poland several times of aiding in the preparation of a coup in Belarus. "We have evidence that special services of Poland and Germany are involved," he said in March when commenting on the election day in December, which saw clashes between riot police and opposition activists.
As the diplomatic crisis continues to snowball, German and Polish diplomats have turned up their criticisms of the Belarusian regime. "This is the last dictatorship, the last dictator in Europe, and we will not let ourselves be intimidated by such actions against a European institution or against a member state," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was quoted by newswires as saying in Brussels on February 28. "The European Union and Poland can rely on Germany's solidarity. The dictator fools himself when he thinks he can divide us."
However, Belarus has received support from Russia. On February 29, Russian Prime Minister Putin, soon to become yet again president after the election on March 4, said the EU sanctions would not affect the integration processes underway between Moscow and Minsk. "First of all, I hope that the EU and Belarus will normalize their relations, but it will definitely not affect our [Russian and Belarusian] integration processes," Putin was quoted by newswires as saying, referring to the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
In November, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a declaration on Eurasian economic integration - a roadmap of integration processes aimed at creating the Eurasian Economic Union, which will be based on the Customs Union and common economic space among the three countries.
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