Belarus: European Union toughens sanctions
As Belarus’s Central Bank devalues the ruble, the European Union has expanded sanctions and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) invokes human rights mechanism. Mike Harris reports
23 May 11

As Belarus’s Central Bank devalues the ruble, the European Union has expanded sanctions and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) invokes human rights mechanism. Mike Harris reports

In a move signalling increased international pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime, the European Union’s Council of Foreign Ministers today strengthened its sanctions against Belarus. The tougher sanctions are  a direct response to the jailing of opposition activists and former presidential candidates and followed last week’s OSCE decision to invoke the “Moscow Mechanism”, a rarely used tool to monitor human rights that provides official support for a rapporteur to visit Belarus with or without a visa. Earlier this year, official OSCE rapporteur Professor Emmanuel Decaux was refused a visa to travel to Belarus.

The Czech Republic delivered today’s statement, on behalf of 14 OSCE members — Germany, USA, Canada, Denmark, Finland, United Kingdom, Iceland, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Sweden:

It is our view that a particularly serious threat to the fulfilment of the provisions of the OSCE human dimension has arisen in Belarus. We therefore called for a fact-finding mission to examine concerns regarding the demonstrations that took place in Belarus on 19 December 2010, as well as developments since then, in order to produce an independent and impartial report…The recent sentencing of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and several other participants in the December demonstrations only confirms the urgent need for independent scrutiny of Belarusian compliance with OSCE human rights commitments.

At 2pm (GMT) today, the Council of Foreign Ministers added another 13 names to its Sanctions Lists of 176 individuals, which includes the president. Those on the list are barred from entering the European Union and will have their financial assets frozen. The new names added to the list include judges and prosecutors who have been involved in the recent trials of political prisoners. The Council discussed further economic sanctions —  supported by the European Parliament —  but held back after opposition from Italy and Latvia. Diplomats have concluded additional economic sanctions will take weeks to formulate. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister said the extension of the Sanctions List list was in response to the trials: “In Minsk, which is on the continent of Europe, we have ongoing political trials, ongoing political verdicts of a nature that is completely unacceptable. And that means that further measures will have to be taken.” He added: “We also have an ongoing financial crisis, verging on financial collapse, in Minsk. So it is a dramatic situation there as well.”

The pressure on the regime from financial markets also intensified today with the Belarus Central Bank devaluing the ruble from Tuesday. The official exchange rate will fall from 3,155 rubles to the dollar to 4,930 rubles per dollar. This is still significantly higher than the free-floating interbank market rate of around 6,400-6,800 roubles per dollar, suggesting further devaluations cannot be ruled out. According to Royal Bank of Scotland’s director for emerging market research, Timothy Ash, Belarus is running a current account deficit of 16 per cent of GDP. To put this into context, Greece’s deficit peaked at 14.4 per cent of GDP in 2008. The balance of payments crisis had been attributed to inflationary measures the state took in the run up to last year’s presidential election, when Lukashenko ordered a 40 per cent increase in public sector pay. Now mainstream economists are raising fears of hyperinflation and further devaluations.

Moscow sees the country’s economic troubles as an opportunity. Belarus’s Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich has confirmed that the country plans to sell its stake in the nation’s gas pipeline network to Russia for $2.5 bn after a bailout loan from Moscow. With the Kremlin urging further state asset sales, it seems Lukashenko is willing to mortgage his short-term political survival for his country’s economic future.

Mike Harris is Public Affairs Manager at Index on Censorship