EU plans to widen sanctions against Belarus

The EU will tighten sanctions on the Belarus regime by targeting those closest to its authoritarian leader, the union’s top diplomat has said, as ministers prepare to step up their response to what Brussels terms a “hybrid attack” at its eastern border.

Thousands of people have travelled from the Middle East via Minsk to Belarus’s borders with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia in recent months in the hope of entering the EU. European officials say the surge is being orchestrated by Minsk in retaliation for the bloc’s support for the Belarusian opposition.

Josep Borrell, head of the European External Action Service, the EU’s security and diplomatic arm, said foreign ministers meeting on Monday will give the green light to a widening of the legal framework governing sanctions on Belarus, as part of measures to press authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko to stop the flow of migrants to Europe’s borders.

Lukashenko “believed that by retaliating in this way he was going to twist our arm and have the sanctions cancelled,” Borrell told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche. “Quite the opposite is happening.”

On Sunday afternoon, Borrell said he had held a phone call with the Belarus foreign minister Vladimir Makei to raise the “precarious humanitarian situation” at the border with the EU. “The current situation is unacceptable and must stop. People should not be used as weapons,” he said on Twitter after the call. The Belarusian foreign ministry confirmed the call had taken place and said it was prepared for “mutually respectful dialogue” with the EU.

Borrell’s words came after EU diplomats told the Financial Times on Friday that the bloc was working on drawing up a wide-ranging list of people and entities involved in facilitating the movement of people from regions such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq to the EU-Belarus border.

The EU is considering sanctions on two dozen Belarusian officials, a Syrian airline and a hotel in Minsk, diplomats said. The draft list includes Syrian carrier Cham Wings for running flights to Belarus and the Hotel Minsk for housing migrants in the country, and could extend to Minsk airport. Member states were divided on whether the measures should apply to the airport given the legal complexities involved, the diplomats said. They said the final list of people and entities would take weeks to finalise as the EU co-ordinates with allies.

In the JDD interview on Sunday, Borrell said: “We strengthen [the sanctions] by targeting precisely those who co-operate with [Lukashenko]. We sanction individuals, but also companies with a strong export presence. We have not exhausted our capacity for sanction against companies, but we do not want this to affect the living conditions of the people.” 

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Sunday that Warsaw had been in dialogue with Lithuania and Latvia about triggering discussions among Nato states over the crisis. He also raised the prospect of completely closing the EU’s border with Belarus, and said the EU should co-finance a wall Poland planned to build on its eastern border.

“We already know that in order to stop the Belarusian regime, words alone are not enough,” he said in an interview with Poland’s state news agency. “Lukashenko won’t stop this assault on the border unless we start to act together.”

The US secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke on Saturday with Polish foreign minister Zbigniew Rau reaffirming US support for Poland in the face of the Lukashenko regime’s “cynical exploitation of vulnerable migrants”. Blinken said the Lukashenko regime threatened security, sowed division, and aimed to distract from Russia’s activities on the border with Ukraine. The secretary expressed his deep appreciation for Poland’s vocal support for neighbouring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Lukashenko warned on Thursday that his country could retaliate against any “unacceptable” sanctions by cutting deliveries of gas or goods to Europe. Russia supplies about 40 per cent of the EU’s gas, with about a fifth transiting through Belarus.

Russian president Vladimir Putin said on Saturday that Lukashenko had not discussed the threat with him, and that he hoped Belarus’s president would not try to cut off gas supplies.

In fragments of an interview broadcast on state television on Sunday, Putin also said that Moscow was ready to help resolve the border crisis if asked, but laid blame for it on decades of US and Nato intervention in the Middle East.

Brussels has been lobbying countries used as migrant transit points on the route to Minsk to help stop the flow of people, which has left thousands stranded in freezing conditions between Belarusian and Polish forces on the bloc’s eastern border.

According to data from FlightRadar, Cham Wings has run four flights from Damascus to Minsk since November 7. The airline said on Saturday that it was suspending flights to Belarus “effective immediately”.

On Friday, Turkey’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation said it had banned citizens of Iraq, Syria and Yemen from buying tickets from Turkish airports to Belarus until further notice.

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