The European Union imposed sanctions against Belarus on Friday in a bid to pressure President Alexander Lukashenko to hold a fresh election.
The EU follows the U.K. and Canada in taking action against the regime, saying that the Aug. 9 election that saw Lukashenko reelected was neither free nor fair and condemning the regime’s violence against peaceful protesters and arbitrary arrests.
EU leaders agreed to impose asset freezes and travel bans on 40 Belarusian officials during late night talks at a summit in Brussels. But Lukashenko himself wasn’t on the list, raising questions about how much influence the EU will bring to bear on the Belarusian regime.
“This is pure symbolism,” said Artyom Shraibman, founder of Minsk-based political consultancy Sense Analytics. “The West has very few levers in the Belarusian crisis. The reason is banal -- Lukashenko couldn’t care less about the West’s view of his actions.”
The EU is trying to project its influence and support democratic values beyond its eastern frontiers as Lukashenko, with the backing of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, clings to power after 26 years in office. But its efforts have been hamstrung by conflicting national interests and a rulebook that gives every member state a veto over foreign policy decisions. The Belarus sanctions were only unlocked after weeks of negotiations to persuade Cyprus to drop its veto.
“The sanctions against actors in Belarus will go into effect,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the decision. “That means the European Union is now acting against those who stand against the democratic movements. That is a very important signal.”
Lukashenko was sworn in for a sixth term at a surprise ceremony on Sept. 23 despite hundreds of thousands of opponents turning out at weekly demonstrations across the country. Western governments including Germany and Lithuania have refused to recognize his victory, while exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said she is the legitimate winner of the election.
On Tuesday, the U.K. imposed sanctions on Alexander Lukashenko, his son Victor, head of presidential administration Igor Sergeenko and five other senior figures in the Belarus government. U.S. President Donald Trump extended existing sanctions against Belarus in June and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News Thursday that the U.S. would “look at the tools” to do more to help the people in Belarus deliver the outcomes that they are demanding.
“Sanctions send a signal to Belarus and the international community of EU states’ frustration with a fraudulent election and continued violent crackdowns on protesters and opposition figures,” Olga Oliker, Director for Europe & Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, said in a statement. “However, they are unlikely to change Lukashenko’s calculus and policies.”
The Belarusian foreign ministry said Friday the country also enacted its own sanctions list which won’t be made public and may reconsider its participation in joint programs with the EU and could even cut off diplomatic ties.
Belarus recalled its ambassadors from neighboring Poland and Lithuania for consultations and told the two countries they should cut the number of staff of their embassies to “parity” with Belarusian diplomatic missions, state-owed news agency Belta reported, citing Foreign Ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz. Foreign ministry also recalled accreditations of all foreign reporters in the country, effective Friday, according to a statement on its website.
Cyprus had refused to sign off on the Belarus penalties unless other member states agreed to expand a blacklist against Turkey over its controversial natural-gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. Other governments including Germany were wary of provoking Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who plays a key role in containing illegal migration into Europe, and the deadlock dented the bloc’s push to exert more geopolitical clout.
To get Cyprus on board on the Belarus sanctions, EU leaders agreed to use “all the instruments and the options at its disposal” to defend member states’ interests if there is further provocation from Turkey.
“We would have a toolbox, all necessary tools, at our disposal,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. “We can trigger them immediately.”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte emphasized that the EU wants a “constructive dialog” with Turkey while Mark Rutte of the Netherlands said that the struggle to act against Lukashenko showed the EU rules needed reforming to remove the veto rights for individual countries.
The decision prompted an angry response from Ankara, with the Foreign Ministry saying the summit decision was “detached from reality” and insisted the Turkish Cypriots will continue exploration in the disputed waters unless there’s an agreement on sharing revenue.
Turkey and Cyprus have been at loggerheads over offshore gas reserves in disputed waters off the Cypriot coast. While the Republic of Cyprus officially has sovereignty over the entire island, it has been effectively divided since Turkey’s military captured the northern third in 1974, following a coup attempt in which a military junta in Athens sought to unite Cyprus with Greece. The Turkish minority’s self-proclaimed state in the north, recognized only by Ankara, also claims rights to any energy resources discovered off its coast.