Thursday, 20 January 2011
EU targets Europe's last dictatorship
It is perhaps the most crucial test of will yet for the EU's first foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who is expected to issue an ultimatum to 'Europe's last dictatorship': release the political prisoners arrested during the election or fact a travel ban in the West. She will push EU foreign ministers to adopt the travel ban on 31 January, and all indications are that they will all comply. The US may then follow the EU's lead with joint sanctions.
Today the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the EU to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on all Belarusian officials, judges and security officers involved in the violent crackdown. They are demanding that Belarus re-run the elections in accordance with international standards before the sanctions can be lifted.
During the election on 19 December, Belarusian police arrested about 700 people who were demonstrating after the election result, in which long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko was reelected by a supposed landslide, was announced. International observers said during the course of the voting that the election was suspect, but their office in Minsk was shut down shortly after their statement.
Poland has been leading the charge for EU sanctions. It even enacted its own unilateral travel ban on Belarusian officials. Belarus's Western neighbour has become a sanctuary for the Belarusian opposition, who are now mostly located in Warsaw. While imposing a travel ban on Lukashenko's regime, Poland has waived visa fees for ordinary Belarusians and students expelled for their opposition activities have been offered spots in Polish universities. The country is even building a centre for the Belarusian opposition in Warsaw. Belsat TV, a Belarusian satellite TV station offering the only non-state television to Belarusians, also operates out of Warsaw.
In response to the Polish sanctions and the EU moves, the official Belarusian state newspaper has accused Poland and Germany of plotting to overthrow Mr Lukashenko in order to install a puppet government. The Lukashenko government accused the two countries of planning the 19 December demonstrations as an attempted coup against the government.
Belarus remains a festering unresolved issue on the EU's border - a relic of the cold war that seems out of place in today's Europe. If the demonstrations in Minsk indicate that a movement for democracy may be coming that would topple the Lukashenko regime, it could only be a good thing for the EU. But the big question remains, what regime would replace it? Would it be a pro-Russia regime, or pro-Europe? It could really go either way.