Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was in Brussels on September 21 to lobby the EU for support in the people's fight to oust Belarus' self-appointed President Alexander Lukashenko, but was stymied by Cyprus vetoing the bill to protect its business interests with Russia.
Tikhanovskaya came with a clear and simple list of demands that included the imposition of personal sanctions on Lukashenko and his cronies, but the vote was vetoed by Cyprus.
Tikhanovskaya met with key EU officials at breakfast, but failed to sway Cyprus, which is trying to maintain its neutrality and protect its extensive business interests in Eastern Europe, where it acts as both banker and legal domicile for thousands of companies from across the region. In particular, Cyprus is afraid of offending Russia, with which it has extensive business ties, as the Kremlin has come out in support of the Lukashenko regime.
At the same time, Cyprus is using the issue for its own political agenda and wants the Belarusian sanctions tied to sanctions on Turkey as part of its dispute over territorial rights to a gas field in the sea off the island that Turkey has claimed in the eastern Mediterranean.
The EU as a body has come out strongly in support of Tikhanovskaya and the peaceful opposition movement that is trying to oust Lukashenko after he blatantly falsified the presidential election vote on August 9, awarding himself a landslide victory. EU chief Josep Borrel made a statement last week saying in black and white that the EU didn't accept the vote and declared that Lukashenko is not the legitimate president of Belarus.
The EU member states, led by Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, have tabled a motion to impose personal sanctions on Lukashenko and another 40 of the state’s senior figures, but were unable to passed the resolution as sanctions votes in the EU have to be unanimous, and Cyprus vetoed the bill.
Belarus’ neighbours have been very fast to come out in support of the opposition and were deeply disappointed by Cyprus’ refusal to condemn Lukashenko.
Lithuania Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said in a tweet: “Today's failure to agree on sanctions in support of Belarusians, suffering & fighting for democracy, undermine credibility of democratic values they are fighting for. Some colleagues should not link things that must not be linked. Will continue to insist on substantial actions.”
So far only Lithuania has imposed sanctions on some 30 Belarusian officials and has also gone as far as formally declaring Tikhanovskaya the “president-elect.” Although the EU has refused to acknowledge Lukashenko’s legitimacy, it has stopped short of declaring Tikhanovskaya as the president.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics also protested publicly at the failure. “Discussing many issues in #EU #FAC, including #Belarus. It is regrettable that today we could not decide on sanctions on violations of human rights there due to “a hostage taking” by a member state. Sends a wrong signal to Belarusians, our societies and the whole world,” he said in a tweet.
The EU has found itself with a conundrum. On the one hand it wants to help the struggling people of Belarus that are trying to oust “the last dictator in Europe” who has been in power 26 years, but at the same time it has almost no leverage over Minsk, which was already under EU sanctions following alleged political assassinations in 2010 and the two have few economic ties.
Tikhanovskaya herself has made it clear that the opposition doesn't want to get dragged into the West’s geopolitical showdown with the Kremlin and so limit their response. Tikhanovskaya spelled out once again what she wants from Europe:
Specifically she did not call for general sanctions on Belarus’ leading companies or any economic sanctions. She did not call for any financial aid from Europe, nor did she mention promises of future co-operation, trade deals or future membership of the EU. She did not mention Russia at all, although some, such as Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a leading Washington-based commentator on Eastern Europe, have been calling for sanctions on Belarus to be linked to new sanctions on Russia.
In general, her message boiled down to a demand for the EU to cut all ties with Lukashenko and the state bodies that represent him and support free and fair elections should the opposition manage to bring those about.
Tikhanovskaya has been in exile since she was forced to leave the country under duress a few days after she won the presidential elections. In her early statements she limited her calls for help from the West, but now the demonstrations have gone into their second month and Lukashenko’s position has been significantly bolstered by Russia’s support, she is calling for Europe to play a more active role.
Speaking to reporters after meeting the ministers at breakfast, Tikhanovskaya said: "We did a lot to manage with this situation by ourselves, with only the strength of the Belarusian people, but now I understand that we need exterior help," she said as cited by DW.