'No going back': Poland and Lithuania urge UK to act against Belarus

Call for sanctions and an inquiry comes amid fears of possible Russian action

Poland and Lithuania have urged the UK to take a lead in the political crisis in Belarus by urgently imposing sanctions against officials responsible for last month’s fraudulent presidential elections and demanding an international inquiry into the state’s repression.

The UK outside the EU has set up its own sanctions regime, including Magnitsky sanctions for human rights abuse, and has said it will impose at least the same sanctions as the EU, but the EU’s sanctions have been blocked.

The US said on Friday it would be announcing its sanctions list in a few days, even if the EU was not ready.

Linas Linkevičius, the foreign minister of Lithuania, one of the countries sheltering the exiled opposition, met the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, on Thursday to press the case for UK sanctions, and greater support for Belarus civil society. So far the UK has provided an extra £1.5m to help support media and human rights organisations.

“In Belarus, citizens of Europe are showing such courage,” Linkevičius told the Guardian. “They have been expelled from their jobs, from schools, they have been intimidated, tortured and raped, and still they want, unarmed, to own their future. They are not burning cars. They are holding flowers.”

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the unofficial leader of the opposition, fled to Lithuania, and on Wednesday was feted by the Polish government when she visited Warsaw.

The Polish deputy foreign minister, Marcin Przydacz, told the Guardian his country was coordinating daily with London and intended to discuss a proposed big package of European economic cooperation to help Belarus.

He said: “It would be to Belarus society to decide if they want to be closer to east or west, but we should show what being a friend of Europe offers. The Belarus people of the previous 30 years is over. There is no going back. They are different and changed people. They are not afraid, despite the torture and persecution. Whoever takes over the country will have to recognise that this is a new society.”

He predicted many European governments would not recognise the current president, Alexander Lukashenko, after his term of office expires on 5 November.

Lithuania has, along with the two other Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia, already imposed travel bans on some Belarus officials, but plans for EU sanctions have been paralysed by Cyprus blocking action against the Russian-backed Belarus leadership unless the EU also agrees to impose sanctions on Turkey over Ankara’s assertion of gas drilling rights in the Mediterranean.

Cyprus, which has long acted as an EU visa point and tax haven for Russian oligarchs, has been accused of blackmail by some European leaders. Przydacz said it was inevitable that countries to the south had different priorities to the east, but urged Cyprus to keep the two issues separate.

Linkevičius said the Belarus crisis was a test case for European values, and should not be reduced to bargaining over regional interests.

“We have to have a value-based approach, and not be hostage to our national interests. This is not just about Belarus but about us, and whether we are able to react properly and on time. We are already one month after those so-called elections so we now need to send a clear message,” he said.

“In Belarus they are European citizens, and who can speak for them if not us? If we react too late or too little, the protesters will feel deserted, and our expressions of concern will have no impact. Everywhere dictators are trying to impose a new normal by consolidating their power against liberal democratic society.

“The outgoing leadership in Belarus has to understand its mandate has expired politically, morally and soon legally, and that they have no right to speak on behalf of their own people.”

With Vladimir Putin due to meet the Belarus president on Monday, Linkevičus said he feared Russia could seek to annex or even invade Belarus. He said Putin had always banked on fatigue, divisions in the west, and an illusion of promised constitutional reform.

He stressed the demonstrators in Belarus were not anti-Russian but warned if Putin backed the repression, it might have a long-lasting and damaging impact on sympathy for Russia across Belarus, adding: “It is up to Putin to decide.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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