One day before Alexander Lukashenko's third inauguration as president of Belarus, opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich once again urged the west to step up the pressure on "the last dictatorship in Europe."
Belarus' opposition says EU support not sanctions will help
Belarus opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other political leaders in Berlin on Friday, urging the EU to forgo sanctions against his country.
"We are taking a very cautious stance on any plans to impose economic sanctions against Belarus," he said. "Experience has shown that economic sanctions more often than not hurt the poorest in society and affect the leadership to a far lesser degree."
Ending a week-long tour of the EU, Milinkevich said he was grateful for the overwhelming support he had received over the past few days from the European Parliament and Commission as well as from individual EU member states. But he warned that if sanctions are imposed, the regime in Minsk might effectively be able to portray itself as a martyr.
"We wouldn't like to provide a dictator with such an opportunity," he said. "This is why we are in favor of limited sanctions which target only those who violate democratic laws by discriminating against whole groups of the population and subjecting them to reprisals."
Travel restrictions likely
Germany's Christian Democratic Union Secretary General Ronald Pofalla said he understood the opposition's concerns, adding that travel restrictions for Lukashenko and his ministers are a far more likely EU measure than economic sanctions. Pofalla also came out in favor of easier and less bureaucratic exchange of scientists and NGO representatives from both countries.
"People in Belarus can rest assured that Germany will support democratically-minded forces in their country and stand up for human rights there," he said. "We have also reiterated our demand to immediately release all those who were arrested by Lukashenko's regime during the peaceful protests before and after the parliamentary elections."
Lukashenko's inauguration Saturday would not be accompanied by yet another round of protests in Minsk because "we don't want to see more people jailed," Milinkevich said. "We'll rather have to fight for the speedy release of those already in Lukashenko's prisons."
Follows Russian visit
The opposition leader's stop followed a two-day visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who held talks with German Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung. The two ministers disagreed over Belarus with Russia expressing support for the current regime.
Belarus' regime is dependent on cheap Russian oil
On this trip, Milinkevich was hesitant to openly criticize Russia for its unambiguous support for Lukashenko. But he hoped that President Vladimir Putin would change his mind as protests against the regime in Minsk were continuing unabated throughout Europe.
"Basing the opposition's strategy on an equation which doesn't include Russia just wouldn't work," he says. "It's important to realize that without Moscow's support, the current Belarusian regime wouldn't be able to survive for long. Besides, our coalition of opposition forces is by no means anti-Russian. We endorse good relations with our big neighbor."
Meanwhile, the Belarusian foreign ministry has poked fun at Milinkevich's tour of Europe, saying that his post-election campaign against Lukashenko is a joke.
"It's time that the opposition woke up to the realities in Belarus," a spokesman said.