European Union foreign ministers announced Monday a fresh raft of sanctions against the Belarusian government, this time targeting 86 officials and state-owned entities. The United States followed with sanctions of its own, with Britain expected to announce new measures in the next few days.
The new EU sanctions earmark officials suspected of involvement in the forced landing of a Ryanair plane last month as well as participation in the crackdown on opposition protests in Belarus mounted since last year August, when Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in an election widely seen as rigged. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994.
The ministers are also likely to signal that sanctions will soon be broadened to include restrictions on Belarus exports of potash and petroleum products and also a ban on any new lending by European banks to Belarus. Those penalties will be coordinated with other Western allies, including the United States later this month, say EU officials.
The sanctions announced Monday are a mixture of travel bans and asset freeze. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council tweeted: “Today the EU sends another strong signal of support to the people of Belarus by imposing further restrictive measures. Our message to the regime cannot be misunderstood: Release all political prisoners. Stop further repression."
Among officials blacklisted are transport, defense and air traffic officials.
Subsequent broader economic sanctions recommended by the foreign ministers will be discussed by EU national leaders this week. Belarus is dependent on loans from European commercial banks and bans on new lending and a prohibition on EU investors from trading securities or buying short-term bonds would likely have a major economic impact on the country, say EU diplomats.
“We have to tighten the thumbscrews,” Austria's foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg told reporters.
In the U.S., sanctions announced Monday targeted 16 people and five entities in response to the Lukashenko government's "escalating violence and repression."
Belarus is a major exporter of potash, used in fertilizers, and other chemicals. EU countries imported $1.5 billion worth of chemicals from Belarus last year. It also imported $1.2 billion worth of crude oil and lubricants.
Lithuanian officials also redoubled Monday their accusations that Lukashenko has been “weaponizing” migrants and is behind a surge in Iraqi and Syrian asylum-seekers crossing the border illegally into their country.
They say Belarus’s state-owned tourism agency has been organizing flights to Minsk from Baghdad and Istanbul for migrants, charging them from $1,800 to $12,000, and then handing them over to Belarusian border guards who assist them to cross the mainly forested 680-kilometer border Lithuania shares with Belarus.
In the last few weeks Lithuanian border guards have detained nearly 400 migrants and at least another thousand are believed to be waiting to cross. During the whole of last year only 74 migrants were detained crossing the border into Lithuania from Belarus. Lithuanian authorities say they are stepping up border security and have asked for help from the EU's border guard service, Frontex.
Andrius Kubilius, an EU lawmaker and former Lithuanian prime minister, on Sunday said Belarus is “literally organizing package deals” for migrants, making money while also goading Lithuania.
Lukashenko in May warned he would retaliate against the EU for imposing sanctions after Belarusian authorities forced a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius to land in Minsk, where they then arrested Belarusian political activist and blogger Raman Pratasevich and his companion, Sofia Sapega, a Russian national.
“We stopped drugs and migrants. Now you will eat them and catch them yourselves,” the Belarusian autocrat warned.
Last week, Ingrida Simonyte, Lithuania’s prime minister, toured the border and accused Lukashenko of trying to retaliate against her country for Tsikhanouskaya, who opposition activists say was the genuine winner of last August’s presidential election.
“Lukashenko was threatening the European Union that it will be flooded with drugs and migrants, and here we go — in a couple of weeks we see a rapid increase in people who are crossing the border illegally,” Simonyte told local media.
Lithuania has asked the Iraqi and Turkish governments to intervene and to check people boarding flights for Minsk. Later this month, at a conference in Rome, Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis is scheduled to have meetings with his Turkish and Iraqi counterparts.
So far Western sanctions imposed on Belarus have had little effect in persuading Lukashenko to pull back from his crackdown on dissent and protest. Belarusian authorities have detained and tortured thousands of protesters, according to rights group. Around 30,000 are believed still to be held in detention.
Speaking to British lawmakers recently, opposition leader Tsikhanouskaya a said around a thousand activists are being detained every month. She added. “People are scared of staying in their homes or being on the streets. But they are not giving up — just being more creative with small neighborhood rallies.”
U.S. President Joe Biden raised the issue of Belarus during his summit meeting last week with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a Lukashenko ally.
With the West tightening sanctions on Belarus, Minsk is looking to Russia and China for help. Belarusian Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko has said his country is planning to replace U.S. and European technologies with those from Russia and China.
“Of course, we will have to walk away from Western goods, Western technology. We are ready to switch to, among others, Asian technologies, which have been making great strides in the last few decades. According to preliminary calculations, China alone can provide a replacement for 90 percent of European and US technologies,” Golovchenko told a Belarusian broadcaster recently.