Belarus faces expanded EU sanctions, targeting economy

By Steven Erlanger

Responding to the detention last month of a young opposition journalist, European Union foreign ministers were expected Monday to impose further sanctions on the Belarus government of President Alexander 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 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 EU’s foreign-policy chief.

He said more than 80 individuals and organizations would be targeted with a ban on travel to the EU and asset freezes.

The Europeans imposed previous rounds of sanctions after Lukashenko claimed a reelection 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.

Protasevich, 26, and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, 23, were arrested May 23 after the Belarusian government forced a passenger jet flying between Greece and Lithuania, both EU member states, to land in Minsk, claiming that there was a bomb on board.

Since his arrest, Protasevich — visibly bruised, despite thick makeup — has been heard and seen in recordings and at news conferences in which he has praised 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.

After a breakfast meeting Monday between the foreign ministers and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarus opposition leader, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany made clear that the EU would take a broader approach.

“We will no longer just sanction individuals,” he said. “We will now also impose sectoral sanctions — meaning that we will now get to work on the economic areas that are of particular significance for Belarus and for the regime’s income.”

Maas said that 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.

Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn 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.”

Sanctions on the financial sector will include bans on new loans, investments by EU investors looking to trade securities or buying short-term bonds in Belarus, and investment services from banks in the bloc. EU export credits will also end.

Exports of potash, important for fertilizer, are a major source of foreign currency for Belarus, and the state firm Belaruskali says it produces 20% of the world’s supply.

The EU 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.

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 EU is sending a clear and targeted signal against the Belarusian regime’s unbearable acts of repression,” the Austrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday.

Since last year, the EU has imposed three rounds of sanctions on Belarusian individuals, including Lukashenko, and after the hijacking, the EU 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 Lukashenko’s government.

Asked Monday morning about what these sanctions are expected to accomplish, Borrell 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.

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