RIGA - Moves to ban senior Belarusian officials from the EU over a crackdown on the Belarusian opposition had the backing of the Baltic States, but they opposed calls for economic sanctions, reports AFP. The European Union decided on a visa ban on high-ranking Belarusian officials held responsible for mass arrests after the ex-Soviet republic’s flawed Dec. 19 presidential election.
“We support imposing visa restrictions for those responsible for violating the democratic process,” Latvian Foreign Minister Girts Valdis Kristovskis said. “At the same time, we must think how to promote democracy in Belarus,” he said. “We don’t support economic sanctions because they affect many ordinary people, and haven’t worked before.”
Western observers faulted the poll, which gave victory to strongman Alexander Lukashenko who has ruled Belarus since 1994.
In Brussels, diplomats said that 160 individuals from the regime were on the ban list and would have their assets frozen. However, they said, the EU was unlikely to impose economic sanctions. Sweden and Belarus’ neighbor Poland - both traditionally tough against Lukashenko - are pushing for an embargo. But despite faulting Belarus’ rights record, Latvia and fellow Baltic states Estonia and Lithuania hope to keep trade ties on an even keel. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, whose country is lending its IT expertise to Belarusian exiles opposing Lukashenko from cyberspace, said that it was crucial not to hurt ordinary Belarusians. “We have to be even more active in supporting Belarusian civil society and democratic forces,” he added.
In Lithuania - home to a university for Belarusian exiles - President Dalia Grybauskaite’s spokesman, Linas Balsys, said the country backed the visa ban. “But the president believes one cannot impose economic sanctions on the entire Belarusian people,” he said.
Like Belarus, the Baltic trio won independence as the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. But they are anchored in the West, having joined the EU and NATO in 2004. The economy is at the forefront as the trio - whose combined population is just 6.7 million - emerge from biting global recession. “We are the direct neighbor of Belarus,” noted Lithuanian analyst Kestutis Girnius.
Minsk lies 200 kilometers from Vilnius, making it the nearest capital. “Trade with Belarus during the crisis is very important, so Lithuania does not want to take a step back,” he noted. Lithuanian direct investments in Belarus have risen eleven-fold in the past five years, notably in the retail, timber, food and construction sectors.