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Europe

EU Has Window of Opportunity in Belarus, Experts Say

The European Union imposed a travel ban on members of the current Belarusian regime Monday. Some argue that the bloc should try to lure Minsk with offers.

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Unlike Lukashenko, Belarusian opposition leader Milinkevich is welcome in the EU

Two days after Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko celebrated taking office for the third time, EU foreign ministers banned him and 30 other top officials from entering the 25-member states.

It was a symbolic measure intended to show the EU’s distaste for “Europe’s last dictator” as Lukashenko has come to be called, particularly after the March 19 election -- in which he was re-elected with 83 percent of the vote. The poll was widely condemned as rigged and was accompanied by a harsh crackdown on the opposition.

The ban will also apply to the head of the KGB state security agency, the justice, education and information ministers, the prosecutor general and judges, the speaker of parliament’s lower house and the head of the state’s radio and TV programming.

“We should have banned more of them,” one European minister told reporters after the meeting.

So far, the ministers have taken no action on trade sanctions but promised to consider such measures including freezing Belarusian accounts in the EU in the near future.

EU stützt weißrussische Opposition

The EU is an important trade partner for Belarus and is considering trade sanctions

But many say such measures are inappropriate.

"Any sanctions must target those who work against the establishment and development of a civil society and not against the general population," said Angelika Nussberger, a professor at Cologne University who specializes in the former Soviet bloc.

Lukashenko lashes out at west

At Saturday’s swearing in, the 51-year-old Lukashenko told spectators that the EU, and particularly new EU member states such as Poland and Latvia, were trying to destabilize Belarus.

Weissrussland Präsident Alexander Lukaschenko beginnt seine 3. Amtszeit

President Alexander Lukashenko first took office in 1994

“They have a crusade against us, but voters here don’t want a colored revolution,” he said, referring to peaceful regime change in Ukraine last year.

Belarusian officials scoffed at the travel ban.

"Short-sighted actions of this sort are clearly ineffective and serve only to complicate problems in our relations rather than trying to solve them," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Popov in a prepared statement.

Doing more but what?

While the travel ban is considered symbolic at best, particularly in light of a trip last week by opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich to the EU, should the EU consider stiffer sanctions?

Milinkevich urged EU officials during his trip not to punish the people of Belarus with sanctions because it would affect them more than the leadership.

But some member states say the EU needs to punish the dictator with more than statements. Trade sanctions against the country would hurt Belarus because about 40 percent of its trade is with the EU, worth about 2.6 billion euros ($3.2 billion) annually, according to Eurostat.

Another measure could be to withdraw Belarus' privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences, which grants Belarus and other countries duty-free or reduced tariffs on exports. Already, it has cut off some aid to the country through its “neighborhood policy.”

Pipeline Russland Deutschland Ostsee wird verlegt

Another gas war may start soon between Russia and Belarus

One factor that might help the EU is Russia, say experts. Although Belarus is even more dependent on Russia than the EU because of cheap Russian gas, this week Russia set a deadline of April 30 for Belarus to either turn over the controlling stake in state-owned Beltransgaz or begin paying market prices for gas -- three to five times the price it currently pays. That would cripple the Belarusian economy, currently growing at 8 to 10 percent annually -- and weaken Lukashenko's support base.

Meanwhile, vulnerability and dependence on Russia scares Lukashenko, say experts, which might make Lukashenko more responsive to EU overtures.

"There is a real opportunity right now to reach out and engage with Belarus because it is being bullied by Russia," said Charles Grant, director of the London-based Center for European Reform. "(EU foreign policy chief Javier) Solana should visit Minsk and say, 'Hey, if you take steps to free the media, political prisoners and so on, we can give you lots of goodies' such as more help with Chernobyl, security and Council of Europe membership."

That is why Nussberger agreed that travel restrictions are not a good idea but more active engagement and support of students and civil rights organizations are.

“Travel bans will just cut off the opportunity for dialogue and we should always leave that door open,” she said. "And we should have no illusions: if there is regime change in Belarus, they will still have a long and painful road ahead of them -- particularly as so many don't want change."

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