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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » March 29, 2012
Politics & Society
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Diplomatic War with Belarus
March 29, 2012   
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EU member states have recalled their ambassadors from the Belarusian capital Minsk in response to that country’s expulsion of EU diplomats—a move that officials in Warsaw and Brussels have described as a declaration of a diplomatic war by authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko. The showdown marks the biggest crisis ever in relations between Belarus and the EU.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Feb. 29 said that all EU member states would recall their diplomats from Belarus and that Belarusian ambassadors to EU countries would be summoned to provide explanations.

Martin Schultz, president of the European Parliament, sharply criticized the authorities in Minsk. “I deeply deplore this decision. This action is disproportionate, unhelpful and counterproductive, and will do even more harm to Belarus’s relations with the European Union,” Schultz said in a statement.

The expulsion of the EU ambassadors on Feb. 28—formally “an order for them to leave for their capitals for consultations”—was Minsk’s response to a formal decision made earlier that day by EU ministers responsible for European affairs to impose sanctions on a further 21 Belarusian officials. The sanctions were imposed on 19 judges and two high-ranking police officers. They received visa bans and their assets were frozen. There are now 231 Belarusian officials on the EU’s “black list,” which may soon become longer because the EU has already announced a debate on restrictions aimed against businesspeople providing funding for the Lukashenko regime and deriving benefits from this.

“The decision shows that the European Union is continuing its policy of blatant pressure,” Andrei Savinykh, spokesman for the Belarusian foreign ministry, wrote in a statement. “We have explained on many occasions that such a policy in relations with the Republic of Belarus is doomed to failure. In response, the Belarusian side will ban the persons who have contributed in the European Union to imposing the restrictions from entering Belarus.”

Lukashenko himself has said on many occasions that it is pointless to hope that Belarus will change course because of sanctions, accusations and demands, and that his country has many friends, including Russia, China, India and Central Asia. “For the time being, we are tolerating these sanctions which you, Europeans, are waving under our nose. But as soon as you cross the red line we will respond very sharply,” Lukashenko said recently.

The European Union imposed the sanctions on the authorities in Minsk, including Lukashenko, who is persona non grata in all EU member states, in connection with the rigging of the 2006 presidential election in Belarus and repression against the opposition. The sanctions were suspended after a temporary warming of relations between Brussels and Minsk but imposed again after the Belarusian authorities cracked down on a demonstration staged by the opposition on election day Dec. 19, 2010—an operation as a result of which some demonstrators, including opposition candidates in the election, were handed prison terms. Since then Brussels has expanded its sanctions. The assets of three firms connected with the regime were frozen and a ban was imposed on exports to Belarus of materials that could be used against the opposition or demonstrators.

In March last year, Minsk announced it had blacklisted some EU officials, including Poles, and banned them from entering Belarus. The list has not been published. It contains 150 names, according to media reports.

The expulsion of the Polish ambassador from Minsk sparked outrage in Warsaw, but has also provided Polish politicians with an opportunity to emphasize the role Warsaw plays in the EU’s relations with Belarus, Poland’s eastern neighbor.

“For the first time we had a situation where Poland appealed to the EU for solidarity with the ambassadors asked to leave Minsk and within two hours all the countries made a decision” to back Poland, said Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski. “This shows what position Poland has in the EU.” Sikorski added that Warsaw and the EU were ready to liberalize their relations with Belarus at any time on condition that political prisoners are released and repression is stopped against the Belarusian people.

The Polish ambassador to Belarus, Leszek Szerepka, said he hoped to return to Minsk together with other EU ambassadors. “I was asked [by the Belarusian authorities] to go to Poland for consultations. I hope these consultations will not last too long,” Szerepka said.
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