EU Sanctions: the Longer the More Surreal
Members of the European Parliament agreed to prolong sanctions against Belarus while at the same time postponing their application. A resolution adopted Dec. 17 delays the imposition of travel restrictions on top Belarusian officials until Oct. 2010.
The EU also promises to lift the restrictions “at any time, in light of actions by the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights,” to discuss easing visa rules for Belarusian citizens, and even to negotiate a new bilateral cooperation accord with Minsk. As soon as it holds free and fair parliamentary elections, Belarus will also be invited to participate fully in the Eastern Partnership Assembly.
While some see the adopted measures as punishment, the carrots seem to by far outweigh the EU sticks. The recent decision may well be another feather in the cap of the Belarusian president, who is skillfully balancing between the East and the West, receiving substantial economic benefits in exchange for symbolic gestures, and half-hearted measures.
The signs of progress that the EU is referring to are releasing a number of political prisoners, allowing the distribution of two independent newspapers, and ensuring “constructive and active participation” of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership.
There seem to be even more things belonging on the EU’s naughty list, however:
1. Refusal to register political parties (e.g. Belarusian Christian Democracy), NGOs (Viasna) and independent media (TV Belsat).
2. Continued repression of political opposition.
3. A violent crack down on a demonstration of solidarity with the families of disappeared politicians in Minsk on Oct. 16.
4. Continued imposition of death sentences (most recently, a rejection of an appeal from Andrej Žuk).
5. Violation of freedom of religion (in particular, persecution of the New Life Church).
6. Failure to protect the rights of minorities (in particular, refusal to recognize the Union of Poles).
7. Lack of progress in the areas of electoral code reform.
Based on the track record of the Belarusian authorities, suspending the application of sanctions seems reasonable only if one admits that the sanctions have been useless. Indeed, the effect of the EU sanctions is hard to discern. Cosmetic changes that have occurred in Belarus resulted from the economic crisis and the rising tensions between Belarus and Russia rather than from the Western pressure.
Unlike the regular Belarusians, who have to pay nearly twice as much as Russians to obtain Schengen visas and are too broke to afford leaving the country anyway, the Belarusian ministers barred from traveling to Western Europe have plenty of warmer places to enjoy during the holiday season.
So far even the US sanctions against Belarus’ state-controlled company Belneftekhim did not hit the nail on the head. Freezing Belneftekhim’s assets and prohibiting US companies to do business with it did little more than inconvenience the staff of the US embassy in Minsk, who were given hours to leave before being declared personae non gratae.