Belarus Faces Expanded E.U. Sanctions, Targeting Economy
Belarus Faces Expanded E.U. Sanctions, Targeting Economy
BRUSSELS — Responding to the detention last month of a young opposition journalist, European Union foreign ministers were expected on Monday to impose further sanctions on the Belarus government of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko for its abuses of human rights.
The fourth round of sanctions would hit important parts of the Belarus economy — banking, oil and tobacco and, notably, the potash industry — and represent an effort to broaden the punishment by penalizing organizations rather than just individuals responsible for repression.
The ministers are meeting on Monday in Luxembourg to vote on the sanctions, which are expected to be confirmed by heads of state and government when they meet in Brussels later this week.
“We will approve the package of new sanctions, which is a wider package,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief. He said more than 80 individuals and organizations would be targeted with a ban on travel to the European Union and asset freezes.
The Europeans imposed previous rounds of sanctions after Mr. Lukashenko claimed a re-election victory in an August election widely seen as fraudulent and then crushed a popular uprising. But the latest round was triggered by the detention of Roman Protasevich, a young dissident journalist who was central in reporting on and coordinating last year’s protests.
Mr. Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested on May 23 after the Belarusian government forced a passenger jet flying between Greece and Lithuania, both member states of the European Union, to land in Minsk, claiming that there was a bomb on board.
- Belarus in the spotlight. The forced landing of a commercial flight on Sunday, is being seen by several countries as a state hijacking called for by its strongman president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.
- Election results and protest. It came less than a year after Belarusians were met with a violent police crackdown when they protested the results of an election that many Western governments derided as a sham.
- Forced plane landing. The Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted to Minsk with the goal of detaining Roman Protasevich, a 26-year-old dissident journalist.
- Who is Roman Protasevich? In a video released by the government, Mr. Protasevich confessed to taking part in organizing “mass unrest” last year, but friends say the confession was made under duress.
Since his arrest, Mr. Protasevich — visibly bruised, despite thick makeup — has been heard and seen in recordings and at news conferences in which he has praised Mr. Lukashenko in a dull voice.
The sanctions list includes judges and prosecutors who have been involved in sentencing protesters; members of Parliament and the government; and law-enforcement officials and business executives associated with the government.
On Monday morning, the foreign ministers and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarus opposition leader, met over breakfast. After that meeting, Heiko Maas of Germany, the foreign minister of Germany, made clear that the European Union would take a broader approach, and not only sanction individuals.
The bloc would now, he said, “get to work on the economic areas that are of particular significance for Belarus and for the regime’s income.”
Mr. Maas said the 27 member states were united on the new sanctions. “We want to make very, very clear to Lukashenko that there is no going back,” he said.
Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg pushed for sanctions on potash exports, describing them as crucial.
“The key word, I think, is potash,’’ he said. “We know that Belarus produces very much potash, it is one of the biggest suppliers globally, and I think it would hurt Lukashenko very much if we managed something in this area.”
Exports of potash, important for fertilizer, are a major source of foreign currency for Belarus; the state firm Belaruskali says it produces 20 percent of the world’s supply.
The E.U. statistics agency said the bloc imported $1.5 billion worth of chemicals including potash from Belarus last year, as well as more than $1.2 billion worth of crude oil and related products such as fuel and lubricants.
Sanctions on the financial sector will include bans on new loans, investments by European Union investors looking to trade securities or buying short-term bonds in Belarus, and investment services from banks in the bloc. E.U. export credits will also end.
Austria, which has important banking interests in Belarus through Raiffeisen Bank, had held out against financial sanctions, insisting that they not harm ordinary Belarusians, but finally went along.
“With this agreement the E.U. is sending a clear and targeted signal against the Belarusian regime’s unbearable acts of repression,” the Austrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.
Since last year, the European Union has already imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarusian individuals, including Mr. Lukashenko. After the hijacking, the European Union banned Belarusian airlines from its airspace and asked European airlines not to fly over Belarus.
There has been little sign, however, that the sanctions have altered the policies or behavior of Mr. Lukashenko’s government.
Asked Monday morning about what these sanctions are expected to accomplish, Mr. Borrell, the bloc’s foreign-policy chief, said the new sanctions would increase the pressure for change.
“Sanctions are a way of putting pressure on the government of Belarus,” he said. “And these are going to hurt the economy of Belarus, heavily. What do you expect when you punish something? To change their behavior.”
Separately, on Monday, European leaders renewed sanctions against Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol from Ukraine, extending them for a further year.