Werner Schulz: EU must stop funding the dictatorship
18:43, — Politics
The EU should expand sanctions on all "bagmen" of Lukashenko.
The persecution of opposition and civil society continues in Belarus, and EU member states should rise above national interests to sever the channels the Lukashenko regime uses to finance itself, writes MEP Werner Schulz.
The persecution of members of the opposition and civil society activists has been a feature of everyday life in Belarus since the manipulated re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in December 2010. Long prison sentences have been meted out to dozens of people whose only crime was to call for democracy. Some have been tortured into 'confessions'. The European Union's strategy is currently following two tracks: pressuring the regime and supporting civil society and political opposition.
Numerous initiatives aim at the latter. Aid to Belarusian civil society was quadrupled for 2011-13, to €19.3m, facilitation of visa issuing is under way and a dialogue for modernisation with civil society started in March this year. To pressure the regime, the EU in early 2011 and again in March 2012 banned individual Belarusian officials from entering the bloc and froze their assets. The partnership agreement, which once appeared imminent, is on ice. Foreign ministers from EU member states prolonged the sanctions against 243 individuals and 32 entities in their recent Council meeting in October.
But the EU's sanctions have not halted abuses – and they have failed even in practical terms. Belarus's interior minister was able to travel to an Interpol conference in Lyon last year. Lukashenko's sons – who are on the blacklist – are free to roam the world unhindered as members of the Belarusian Olympic Committee. The freeze on accounts, a matter for individual EU states, is also debatable. No one at the European Commission or in the member states knows for certain whether or which funds have been blocked by EU banks.
Moreover, despite Belarus's political isolation, the EU's trade with Belarus is flourishing. Belarus's exports to the EU rose by 221 per cent in 2011, and in the first six months of this year alone EU countries gave Lukashenko a gift of $8bn worth of external trade, which now far exceeds its exports to Russia. Business is booming in the other direction as well, with investments last year by German and British banks and companies, in particular, on a scale seldom seen before.
Normally, good trade figures are the key to a country's economic stability and prosperity. However, because goods and profits are concentrated in the hands of state authorities, trade primarily bolsters the system. With a trade deficit of €4.5bn with Belarus, the EU was the Lukashenko system's greatest supporter in 2011, and as such, is keeping it alive. Europe must take more targeted action.
There are only a handful of de facto oligarchs, in many cases former KGB functionaries, who arrange important exports for the regime, bring foreign capital into the country and run phoney privatisation processes in order to find purchasers in the west. Economic sanctions against Lukashenko's bagmen and their companies could have the desired effect. Belarus would not be able to get around economic sanctions simply by expanding relations with Russia. Nearly 100 per cent of some export products go to the west, primarily those in important areas such as fertiliser production, steel and crude-oil processing.
But EU member states are split and egoistic when it comes to include more of Lukashenko's bagmen in the blacklist. Latvia, a major importer of Belarusian oil products, has twice in the past blocked the adoption of EU sanctions, allowing Lukashenko's nomenklatura to earn money through oil smuggling. EU sanctions last spring omitted several Latvian-linked companies owned by Yury Chizh, an oligarch close to Lukashenko, such as Traiplenergo, Belneftegaz and Neonafta. They also omitted Mamas D, a joint venture in Latvia which makes 'biodiesel' by mixing Russian diesel with vegetable additives. Slovenia protected other companies of Chizh that are linked to the Slovenian construction industry.
Europe must overcome its national interests and sever the channels that the Lukashenko regime uses to finance itself. This is what many in the Belarusian opposition and civil society want. And for Europe, such steps would be a consistent assertion of fundamental values such as human rights and democracy.
Werner Schulz is a German Green MEP and a member of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Public Service Europe
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