EU foreign ministers on Monday (12 October) agreed to impose sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and move forward with a sanctions framework against the culprits involved in the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
As part of a new package of measures responding to the continuous crackdown on protesters in Belarus, Lukashenko will be targeted with a travel ban and his assets will be frozen.
Additionally, the EU will scale back the financial support it gives to his government and instead increase its support for the Belarusian people and civil society, EU foreign ministers said in a statement.
They condemned the violence used by the authorities against peaceful protesters and called for the release of all detained persons, including political prisoners.
In this context, EU foreign ministers stated “the EU stands ready to take further restrictive measures, including against entities and high-ranking officials, including A. Lukashenko.”
The EU had imposed new sanctions on 40 officials and entities involved in election fraud and violent crackdown of protests in early October, but so far refrained from penalising Lukashenko himself, hoping to persuade him to engage in dialogue with opposition forces to resolve the crisis.
“There hasn’t been any sign from the Belarus side to engage in dialogue with the opposition,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told reporters after the meeting, adding that “business as usual” in light of police brutality against protesters no longer possible.
The fresh crackdown on mass protests in Minsk over the weekend, which saw police use water cannons and stun grenades to break up a protest in Minsk and make hundreds of arrests, prompted a change in approach.
After getting the political green light from ministers, the new sanctions list will be processed in detail by the EU’s legal services before they enter into force.
EU foreign ministers also discussed a joint French-German proposal for targeted sanctions over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, agreeing to sanction the people and entities potentially responsible for it.
“We have initiated sanctions against individuals whom we believe to be partly responsible for this violation of international law. It is important that the EU shows unity in such a serious crime – we did that today,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters after the meeting.
EU diplomats said there was broad support among foreign ministers for asset freezes and travel bans on several Russian GRU military intelligence officials.
The political agreement is to be legally implemented “as soon as possible”, but before the December EU summit.
Poland had pushed but failed for Germany to also stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, an EU source told EURACTIV.
The move comes after Germany and France in a statement last week accused Moscow of responsibility for poisoning Navalny with Novichok nerve agent, saying “no credible explanation has been provided by Russia”.
The call came after tests conducted at labs designated by the UN’s Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last week confirmed Germany, France and Sweden’s findings.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said ahead of the meeting it was important to persuade Moscow to fully co-operate in any investigation into the poisoning.
“The law has been broken by producing a substance like Novichok and the law has been broken by using it on Russian territory,” Haavisto said.
Asked about the long-term impact of the case on EU-Russia relations, Borrell told reporters that “the whole world cannot be reduced to this unhappy event of poisoning of Navalny”.
“This has a concrete answer, but it doesn’t prevent the rest of issues to be taken into consideration,” Borrell said.
Chemical weapons penalties
Before the meeting, France and Germany had said they would push for sanctions targeting “individuals deemed responsible for this crime and breach of international norms, based on their official function, as well as an entity involved in the Novichok programme”.
The list for the EU’s chemical weapons sanctions framework was extended by a year until October 2021, under which four Russians accused of involvement in the Salisbury attack against ex-double agent Sergey Skripal using Novichok have already been listed.
One organisation, Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, is also subject to sanctions as the Syrian regime’s principal entity for the development of chemical weapons.
The restrictive measures consist of a ban on travel to the EU and an asset freeze for persons and an asset freeze for entities.
In addition, persons and entities in the EU are forbidden from making funds available to those listed. Any sanctions related to the Navalny poisoning would be made under this already existing framework.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]