The EU finally imposed sanctions on 40 senior Belarusian officials for organising a brutal police crackdown on protesters and repression of the people to keep incumbent President Alexander Lukashenko in power.
Belarus has been torn by month-long protests against the incumbent after he massively falsified the results of the presidential election on August 9 and is desperately clinging on to power through the use of force.
Lukashenko himself was not on the EU sanctions list, but may be added later. The highest ranking official on the list was Minister of the Interior Yury Karaev, who is responsible for the militia and OMON riot police that were responsible for the detention and beating of protesters. Other senior figures in the electoral commission and in the KGB and the head of the OMON were also listed. All the sanctioned people face travel bans in the EU and asset freezes.
In tandem the US also added 16 names to its existing list of eight names that it sanctioned last week. The US list includes Lukashenko.
Ukraine said it would also join the EU sanctions on October 2.
Lukashenko immediately hit back with sanctions on EU officials, although Minsk did not release the list of names.
“We are determined to join these sanctions, because we are talking about issues of policy coherence. Ukraine believes that in this situation it is important to act as a united front. We are doing everything in our power to help the people of Belarus in this difficult situation,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba in an interview with the BBC.
EU Council President Charles Michel reiterated the bloc's stance that "the people of Belarus have the right to determine their own future" while Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen stressed that "there will no impunity for those who are responsible for the crackdown on demonstrator and opposition candidates."
An EU source told Euronews that "in general we reject the notion of so-called retaliatory sanctions… The EU sanctions regime is based on specific reasons and legal grounds – in the case of Belarus it's for breaches of rights of the population, disrespect for citizens' fundamental freedoms and for election fraud," the official added.
Politicians in Europe were quick to condemn the elections, which gave Lukashenko a landslide win with over 80% of the vote, according to the official results. However, rebel polling stations that released the actual results of voting and a statistical study both point to a victory by former English teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who won with something between 50% and 70%.
Country-wide protests broke out immediately after the official results were released which the authorities answered with a brutal crackdown. Thousands of people were arrested, beaten, and some even raped, by police. Since then there have been mass rallies every weekend, with some 100,000 on the street demanding Lukashenko’s resignation. The demonstrations are the biggest the country has seen since its independence in 1991.
European parliamentarians have declared Lukashenko illegitimate. After his secret inauguration on September 23 a letter sent from 274 Western parliamentarians from 29 countries condemned Lukashenko and threatened action. The letter specifically names several senior officials in Lukashenko’s administration, a clear threat of personal sanctions being imposed on personnel that continued to support Lukashenko.
Efforts to impose targeted sanctions on the incumbent have proved difficult, as any vote needs unanimity amongst all member states. The EU met on September 30 for a two-day summit and its credibility was on the line as it attempted for a second time to get a sanctions vote through.
“The European Union is taking action against those who stand in the way of democracy,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after fraught discussions on October 1 among the 27 EU member states that dragged on past midnight. “I think that is an important signal,” Merkel added.
Poland and the Baltic states quickly imposed their own sanctions on the Lukashenko regime, followed more recently by the UK and Canada, but embarrassingly an attempt to vote through sanctions by the whole EU was vetoed by Cyprus.
Cyprus insisted that sanctions also be imposed on Turkey, which has stepped up oil and gas exploration in disputed areas of the Mediterranean, where tensions have been rising recently. After a short war in 1974, the island was split between the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government – an EU member – in the south, and a self-declared Turkish Cypriot administration in the north, which is backed by Turkey. Relations with Turkey and the EU are also under increasing strain and were also a major topic of discussion at the EU summit.
The new sanctions on Minsk are a reversal of what were improving relations until recently as Lukashenko tried to play West off against East, as his relations with Moscow have been strained in the last year after Russia began to withdraw massive energy subsidies. The EU lifted earlier sanctions against Lukashenko in 2016 that included a list of 169 figures linked to his government.
The new EU sanctions drew and immediate riposte from Minsk, which immediately withdrew ambassadors from several EU countries and scrapped foreign journalists' accreditation.
Minsk also imposed its own sanctions on the EU that will ban some politicians from entering Belarus and proposed the sanctions be extended to the whole Eurasia Economic Union (EEU), of which Belarus is a member.
It is unclear how many EU officials have been sanctioned by Minsk, as the list will not be made public. "Belarus is always in words and in fact against confrontation. We are for dialogue and understanding. But as a sovereign state, we are also determined, albeit not without regret, to respond to unfriendly actions in order to naturally protect our national interests," the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Moscow was ambivalent about applying the Belarusian sanctions across the whole of the EEU, which also includes countries such as Kazakhstan and Armenia, but said it may impose sanctions on a selective basis as part of its “partner duty.” In practice, the Belarusian sanctions only have legal force in Belarus and the EEU is not obliged to participate.