EU targets key Belarus sectors after plane diversion

EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to sanction key sectors of the Belarus economy as the bloc ratchets up pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko after the forced landing of an airliner. 

Ministers meeting in Luxembourg backed broad-ranging measures targeting major revenue sources for the Belarusian regime: potash fertiliser exports, the tobacco industry, petroleum and petrochemical products.

Officials said the measures — including a ban on sales of surveillance equipment to Belarus and tightening of an arms embargo — should be formally adopted by the 27-nation bloc in the coming days. 

The ministers also officially signed off on adding 86 additional individuals and entities to an assets freeze and visa ban blacklist. 

Seven people — including  defence minister Viktor Khrenin and transport minister Alexei Avramenko — were sanctioned for the forced landing of a Ryanair passenger jet last month.

The remaining 71 individuals — including Russian tycoon Mikhail Gutseriyev, Lukashenko’s son Dmitry and daughter-in-law Liliya — were targeted for ties to the Belarus government’s sweeping crackdown on opposition or for supporting the regime.  

“Today we have confirmed and decided that sectoral sanctions will be taken against Belarus, which will have a severe impact on the Belarusian economy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said ahead of the meeting.  

“We want the release of the political prisoners, an end to the violence against protesters and the opposition, and an inclusive dialogue that will lead to free and fair elections.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said earlier that the economic sanctions should be wrapped up after a summit of the bloc’s leaders in Brussels later this week. 

“We’re going to hurt the economy of Belarus heavily.”

EU statistics show that trade with Belarus topped 10 billion euros in 2020. 

Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who insists she rightfully won last year’s poll, welcomed the inclusion of business tycoons and top officials on the blacklist. 

“It’s a rather strong sanction list,” she told a press conference in Brussels. 

– ‘Stalinism’ –

Belarusian strongman Lukashenko sparked international outrage by dispatching a fighter jet on May 23 to intercept the Ryanair plane flying from Greece to Lithuania.

When the plane was forced to land in Minsk, Belarus arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega on board. 

The EU responded quickly by blocking Belarusian airlines from flying to the bloc and stopped carriers from its 27 nations from using Belarusian airspace.

The bloc had already slapped sanctions last year on 88 individuals — including Lukashenko and his son — over a brutal crackdown on protests since the veteran leader claimed victory at elections in August deemed fraudulent by the West. 

The authorities detained thousands during the demonstrations and the EU says that some 500 political prisoners remain behind bars. 

“We are clearly showing that Stalinism and state terror no longer have a place in the 21st century,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said. 

Lukashenko, ruler of Belarus since 1994, has so far shrugged off the pressure with backing from his key ally Russia.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis complained that Belarus was hitting back by sending migrants, mostly Iraqis and Syrians, across its border. 

He warned the flow could increase after sanctions were approved and that Lithuania “might need help and assistance from other European countries”. 

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