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2020.10.29 08:00

Belarus: Where is the EU when you need it? – opinion

Andrew Rettman, euobserver2020.10.29 08:00

It has been 81 days since the first police cosh hit the first skull in Belarus and president Alexander Lukashenko has still not paid any EU price, writes Andrew Rettman at EUobserver, partners of LRT English.

The violence he ordered against peaceful demonstrators after rigged elections on 9 August has been spectacular.

In my 15 years of covering Belarus for EUobserver, I never before wrote of people killed in the street, men and women raped and tortured en masse in detention, and literally thousands dragged into jail.

Even if it was happening in Venezuela or Myanmar, one would expect robust EU sanctions. But the fact it is happening right here in central Europe makes the EU's pusillanimity the harder to bear.

At first, the EU waited for Lukashenko to hold round-table talks with the opposition. It was magical optimism by people who should have known better.

After all, if he stepped down, he would end up either in prison, or as a permanent fugitive.

As a Polish diplomat once told me: "A dictatorship isn't like a casino, where, at the end of the night, you get up, cash your chips, and go home. It's Russian roulette – you only leave the table when you get your brains blown out".

Read more: Can Lithuania become regional leader amid Belarus crisis?

The fact Lukashenko's administration refused to talk to the EU at any level since 9 August should have been a reality check.

The fact he recently reappointed his worst monster – Viktor Sheiman, responsible for vanishing political opponents in the 1990s – to "manage the affairs of the president", should have been another one.

The EU did blacklist 40 Belarusians on 2 October – the interior minister and 39 obscure officials. But it was painful to watch how Cyprus delayed the move.

"A dictatorship isn't like a casino, where, at the end of the night, you get up, cash your chips, and go home. It's Russian roulette – you only leave the table when you get your brains blown out."

What is the EU, anyway? An economic superpower? A Nato-backed geopolitical player? The main champion of human rights on the world stage?

Well, here it was being made to look stupid by a corrupt little island on its eastern fringe, which, at first, vetoed the Belarus sanctions.

Cyprus' stated motive was cynical enough – it wanted to blackmail its EU peers to punish Turkey as well in an unrelated dispute.

But the fact Cyprus does billions of euros of business with Belarus, and hosts shady firms linked to Lukashenko's family, made its veto stink all the worse.

Read more: Lithuania grants 507 visas to Belarusians fleeing repressions

Finally?

EU foreign ministers finally agreed to blacklist Lukashenko himself on 13 October.

But it has been almost as sad to see how EU bureaucracy is now delaying this.

The legal basis for Belarus sanctions has existed since the EU drafted it in 2011, so there is no technical work to do before new designations enter into force.

And yet, the Lukashenko decision has been bouncing around in EU Council "working groups" for two weeks already, with no outcome expected until early November.

At first, EU diplomats aimed to blacklist Lukashenko and 14, or maybe 30, others together in one package. Then they prepared to list him separately. Now they aim to list them together again.

"Relex [a Council group] is at the moment waiting for papers/legislative acts, then this will be followed by a written consultation, and then a meeting of Coreper [another group]," an EU source said this week, describing what sounds normal in the EU capital, but what might well sound like gobbledygook to a Belarusian protester.

The lack of urgency reminded me of 2006.

Back then, I went to Minsk to cover Belarus elections and the ensuing protests and crackdown.

I flew back to Brussels on the day of an EU summit, full of emotion, after spending time in a massive crowd outside Lukashenko's palace, surrounded by riot squads and rooftop snipers, in freezing snow.

But when I arrived in the EU Council building, the only thing people cared about was talks on the EU's next multi-annual budget.

Read more: Surviving captivity in Minsk. Belarusian detainee recalls abuse and endless beatings

Symbols matter

Everybody knows that real EU sanctions on Lukashenko would shut off the money he makes from selling petrol and fertiliser to Europe.

Everybody knows his private fortune is more likely stashed in the Middle East than in EU banks and that he seldom visits EU countries.

But even if an EU asset-freeze and visa-ban on Lukashenko is symbolic, it is a symbolism that is badly needed to keep up opposition morale.

It should have been in place months ago.

And with each day that passes, more people in Belarus feel the same deflation that I felt when I arrived at that summit in 2006.

"It feels as though Europe doesn't give a damn about us," one Belarusian opposition activist, who asked not to be named to protect his safety, told EUobserver this week.

This story originally appeared on EUobserver.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.