EU agrees new sanctions to ‘tighten thumbscrews’ on Belarus

EU countries have agreed to impose wide-ranging new sanctions on economic sectors and government officials in Belarus as President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime ratchets up its pressure on high-profile dissidents. 

Foreign ministers from the European bloc on Monday took action against a further 86 individuals and organisations and set their sights on industries including finance, potash and petroleum products. The US, UK and Canada also announced additional sanctions against Belarus officials and entities in a move co-ordinated with Brussels in an attempt to force the regime to “end its repressive practices against its own people”.

The planned EU economic sanctions, which still await finalisation and legal sign-off, mark a step up in the targeting of Lukashenko’s 27-year-old authoritarian rule. They are a response to Minsk’s interception last month of a Ryanair flight to arrest the blogger Roman Protasevich, part of a crackdown against the opposition since presidential elections last year. Protasevich’s girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a student, was also detained.

“We have to tighten the thumbscrews after this callous action of state air piracy,” Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s foreign minister, told reporters ahead of the meeting in Luxembourg where ministers agreed the sanctions. “We want to hit the state-affiliated economic sector, those responsible, not the people in Belarus, who are suffering anyway.”

The EU slapped asset freezes and travel bans on eight entities and 78 individuals in Belarus, including the defence minister and transport minister. The bloc has already imposed similar measures against scores of other officials, including Lukashenko.

The economic measures are designed to hit some of the eastern European country’s main export sectors. The EU wants to choke off funds to the Lukashenko regime, including via the state companies that dominate the Belarus economy. 

Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said the sanctions would “hurt the economy of Belarus heavily”. Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister said the areas targeted were “of particular significance for Belarus and for the regime’s income.”

Belarus exported about €4bn of goods to the EU, its second largest trading partner after Russia, last year and imported slightly more than €6bn, according to EU data. Its petrochemicals and potash exports are a crucial source of hard currency for Lukashenko’s regime, bringing in at least $6.6bn in revenues in 2020.

The financial sanctions will curb the country’s state institution access to EU capital markets, as well as lending by the EU’s European Investment Bank to Belarus official ventures, diplomats said. There is a proposed exemption for private bank deposits, humanitarian transactions and some local projects. 

The proposed package of EU restrictions also covers the tobacco industry, officials added. It would ban exports of surveillance technology to Belarus and further extend an existing arms embargo, including a halt to shipments of precision rifles used by biathletes.

EU diplomats insist the package has been composed to maximise damage to the regime and minimise harm to the population. But many European officials acknowledge privately that the consequences will only become clear when the sanctions are put into practice.

The EU package is in line with sanctions sought by the opposition movement in Belarus. Ministers held a breakfast on Monday with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate to challenge Lukashenko in last year’s election.

Tsikhanouskaya showed the ministers a bullet she said had been taken from the lung of a young man shot during the protests last August and thanked them for being “united in their position on the situation in Belarus”.

Minsk remains unrepentant under EU pressure. Last week, officials hauled Protasevich from the Belarusian KGB’s jail to a press conference where the blogger, clearly under duress, spoke of his “unconditional” respect for Lukashenko. 

On Monday, Belarus’ supreme court heard oral arguments in the trial of Viktor Babariko, a Russia-linked banker who was arrested on corruption charges after declaring his candidacy against Lukashenko last year. 

Another high-profile opponent, Tsikhanouskaya’s husband Siarhei Tsikhanousky, faces a closed hearing later this week along with several other dissidents, including the prominent blogger Ihar Losik.

Tsikhanouskaya said she suspected the regime had decided to hold the hearing behind closed doors to prevent her husband and the other participants from rallying Belarusians against Lukashenko.

“[The regime] don’t want people to see that these people are not broken, that they are as strong as they are, and they don’t want them to inspire people,” she told the Financial Times last week.

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