Tuesday, 29 Sep 2020

Baltic states hit Lukashenko, other Belarus officials with sanctions

VILNIUS (REUTERS) – Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia imposed travel bans on President Alexander Lukashenko and 29 other Belarusian officials on Monday (Aug 31), signaling impatience with the West’s cautious approach by announcing sanctions without waiting for the rest of the EU.

The three Baltic states have led calls for the West to take firmer measures against Mr Lukashenko, who is accused by opponents and the West of rigging an election to prolong his 26-year rule.

The sanctions, announced simultaneously by the three Baltic countries, target officials that they accuse of vote rigging and playing a role in violence against protesters since the Aug 9 election. Including Lukashenko himself atop the list was a prod at other European countries, which have so far been reluctant to back measures against him personally.

Mr Lukashenko, an ally of Moscow, denies electoral fraud and has said the protesters are backed from abroad.

“We said that we need peaceful dialogue and agreement between the regime and society, but we see that the regime is not ready for that,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said. “We see that we need to move forward and to show an example to other countries.”

The European Union has been working on its own list of individuals in Belarus to target with similar sanctions, expected to exclude Mr Lukashenko. Western countries have mostly been cautious, wary of provoking an intervention from Russia.

The three small Baltic states are all members of the EU and NATO, and Lithuania and Latvia border Belarus. Lithuania has been hosting Belarusian opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled there after the election her supporters say she won.

Ms Tsikhanouskaya will speak to the UN Security Council on Friday at Estonia’s invitation, her spokesman said.

Three weeks into a mass demonstration movement that has peaked on the weekends, tens of thousands of protesters again took to the streets in central Minsk on Sunday, seeking to keep up pressure on Mr Lukashenko to resign. At least 140 people were detained, Russia’s RIA news agency reported, citing the Belarusian Interior Ministry.

Mr Lukashenko has threatened to cut off European transit routes across his country in retaliation against any sanctions. Goods from landlocked Belarus account for almost a third of Lithuania’s rail traffic and port volume, and Belarus is also a major overland route for European goods bound for Russia.

Belarus is Russia’s closest ally among former Soviet states, and its territory is integral to Moscow’s European defence strategy.

President Vladimir Putin has invited Mr Lukashenko to Moscow, a sign of Kremlin support. The two countries’ foreign ministers will hold talks on Wednesday in Moscow.

Last week, the Kremlin announced it had set up a reserve force able to intervene in Belarus, though it did not see a need for such intervention so far. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated on Monday that Moscow still sees no need for action.

The German foreign ministry said it had summoned the Belarusian ambassador on Monday in response to the detention of foreign journalists in Belarus.

During the three weeks of protests, Mr Lukashenko has lost the support of a range of public figures from writers and actors to sportsmen. The burly former boss of a collective farm, he has taken to appearing on television brandishing a Kalashnikov and calling the protesters “rats”.

On Monday, the Catholic Church in Belarus, which has criticised the harsh treatment of protesters by the security forces, said its head, Mr Tadeush Kondrusevich, had been barred from re-entering the country after a trip to Poland. The border guards declined to comment.

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