EU fails to agree Belarus sanctions despite opposition plea

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers failed on Monday to impose sanctions on Belarus officials suspected of election fraud or of playing a part in the security crackdown, despite appeals from President Alexander Lukashenko’s main opponent to take courageous action against his regime.

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With pro-democracy rallies in Belarus now in their seventh week, the EU ministers were weighing whether to impose asset freezes and travel bans on around 40 people linked to irregularities in the Aug. 9 elections that gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office, and over the crackdown that followed.

Several countries want Lukashenko on the sanction list, but some would prefer to gradually ramp up pressure on him by adding names, including his, if he refuses to enter into dialogue with the opposition, rather than hit everyone at once.

Cyprus, notably, continued to block the sanctions move until similar measures are slapped on Turkey for its disputed energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. EU leaders are now expected to try to break the deadlock when they meet in Brussels on Thursday.

“Although there is a clear will to adopt those sanctions, it has not been possible to do that today because the required unanimity was not reached,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters after chairing the ministers’ meeting. “Cyprus is missing to give us unanimity."

Borrell said that the EU’s ability to forge a common foreign policy among 27 countries is on the line over the sanctions.

“If we are not able to do that, then I understand perfectly that our credibility is at stake,” he said.

Even before the meeting began, Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides said that the EU’s “reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent.”

However, Borrell said that the ministers were united in their rejection of the results of the Aug. 9 election that swept Lukashenko back into office after 26 years in power and want to see new polls held under the guidance of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“We are stressing our solidarity with the people of Belarus, their democratic aspirations and their call for a new free and fair elections under the OSCE’s supervision,” he said. He underlined that the EU has no “hidden agenda” in Belarus and he urged other countries not to interfere.

At talks over breakfast before the meeting started, Lukashenko’s main opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, appealed to the ministers for their support and for the EU to call for fresh elections in Belarus.

“We did a lot to manage with this situation by ourselves, with only the strength of the Belarusian people, but now I understand that we need exterior help,” Tsikhanouskaya said, speaking in English.

She is living in exile in EU member Lithuania after fleeing Belarus in fear for her safety and that of her children.

She urged Europe not to provide financial support to the regime, saying “it will only go for violence, for killing Belarusian people.”

Tsikhanouskaya said “sanctions are very important in our fight” to help pressure the government and that while she understood that some European countries are reluctant to impose sanctions, she said that “at this meeting, I asked just to be more brave .”

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Samuel Petrequin in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.