EU agrees to step up sanctions on Belarus over forced plane landing

EU countries have provisionally agreed sanctions on Belarus’s financial, oil and potash sectors in a bid to punish President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime for its interception of a Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident.

The wide-ranging measures are expected to win formal political agreement from the European bloc’s foreign ministers on Monday after a compromise to end Austria’s opposition to some proposed curbs on bank transactions, diplomats said.

It marks a significant escalation in the EU’s pressure on Lukashenko’s authoritarian government, reflecting outrage over the forced landing and detention of Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega last month. The sanctions will test both the durability of Lukashenko’s 27-year rule and the EU’s ability to push for political change while minimising harm to Belarusians. 

The package still needs to be legally finalised and details of precise measures remain confidential until publication. Its aim, diplomats said, is to target state companies and other big sources of revenue for the regime.

Belarus is one of the world’s biggest exporters of potash, a crucial ingredient in fertilisers, and also generates significant revenues from refining oil. Belaruskali, the state-controlled group that accounts for about 20 per cent of the global potash market, sold $2.4bn abroad last year, while state oil group Belneftekhim made $4.2bn from export revenues from January to the end of November.

The financial sanctions will target activities including securities trading, money market instruments and export credits, diplomats said. There is a proposed carve-out for private bank deposits, humanitarian transactions and some local projects. 

Austria’s initial opposition to the planned finance measures had angered some fellow member states, especially given the large role of Austrian banks in international financial transactions involving Belarus.

But Vienna insisted that it just wanted to craft the package to cause as little damage as possible to the Belarusian people — and to avoid pushing Minsk deeper into the Kremlin’s orbit.

“It is of high importance for Austria that financial sanctions do not target the population of Belarus,” the foreign ministry said in a statement before the compromise was agreed. “It is in our common interest that Belarus is not pushed even further into the sphere of influence of Russia.”

The proposed EU package also includes the tobacco industry and closes what one diplomat described as “last loopholes” in an existing arms embargo, including a halt to the export of precision rifles used by biathletes. 

The measures have some overlaps with proposals set out by the Belarusian opposition last month.

Speaking earlier on Friday, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, said sanctions needed to be strong enough to “send a message” that the EU would continue to put pressure on Lukashenko’s regime until “all political prisoners have been freed”.

“A joint position [from the EU] is of great importance now. The regime is not just trying to create divisions in Belarus, it is also trying to divide European society and leaders as well,” she told the Financial Times. 

“The EU cannot allow itself to be divided. The regime is trying to see how far they can go.”

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