EU set to ease sanctions on Belarusian regime after elections

Brussels woos autocratic leader Lukashenko in continuing power struggle with Russia

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. After his last re-election five years ago prompting a brutal police crackdown and the arrest of hundreds of people, including several presidential candidates. Photograph: Nikolai Petrov/Belta/Pool/EPA

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. After his last re-election five years ago prompting a brutal police crackdown and the arrest of hundreds of people, including several presidential candidates. Photograph: Nikolai Petrov/Belta/Pool/EPA

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The European Union is poised to suspend sanctions on autocratic Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and his allies, if Sunday’s election brings no repeat of previous violent crackdowns on the country’s beleaguered opposition.

Mr Lukashenko has ruled the country of 9.5 million people since 1994 and, with all levers of power under his tight control, victory for the former state farm boss seems inevitable.

For two decades he has played off Russia, Belarus’s closest ally, against western states that want to ease the country from the Kremlin’s grip, in a balancing act that has only become harder since conflict struck neighbouring Ukraine.

Mr Lukashenko (61) hosted peace talks on Ukraine in his capital, Minsk, and in August he released from jail six opposition leaders who had been considered the last political prisoners in Belarus.

They are not allowed to run in Sunday’s ballot, which pits Mr Lukashenko – once dubbed by Washington as “Europe’s last dictator” and the continent’s longest-serving ruler – against three candidates with little support.

After his last re-election five years ago, thousands of people protested in central Minsk, prompting a brutal police crackdown and the arrest of hundreds of people, including several presidential candidates.

Diplomats say the EU will suspend asset freezes and travel bans on Mr Lukashenko and some 150 other Belarusians if Sunday’s vote is peaceful, despite the blatant pro-regime bias of an election process that critics call a sham.

“The consensus is finally there and now it is just a formal decision to be taken towards the end of October, assuming Lukashenko doesn’t organise a clampdown on political dissent after the elections,” said one senior EU diplomat.

Andrew Wilson, an expert on Belarus and the region at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “If the West chooses to help, it will be because we value Belarusian statehood and because Belarus has the potential to be a useful counterweight in a highly-troubled region, rather than because it is democratising at home. The latter, at least, may have to wait.”

Belarus has been rattled by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its fomenting of a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 8,000 people, in acts of aggression for which Mr Lukashenko has not publicly expressed support.

The centrally controlled Belarusian economy is struggling, dragged down by its reliance on agreements for cheap fuel, credits and trade with Russia, which has itself been hit hard by Western sanctions and a plummeting oil price.

Last weekend, several hundred people rallied in a rare protest in Minsk, against Russian plans to establish a military airbase in Belarus, as openly discussed by Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin and his officials in September.

“We don’t need a base at the moment . . . I hear shrieks from the opposition about the deployment of a Russian airbase. I don’t know anything about it,” Mr Lukashenko said this week.

At the same time, however, he made clear that Belarus – which is part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union of ex-Soviet states – welcomed Moscow’s help in guarding against Nato members on its border, like Poland and the Baltic states.

“Together we are in charge of the western frontier . . . Essentially we are not standing alone against Nato here, we are together with Russia,” Mr Lukashenko said.

The spotlight on isolated Belarus intensified this week with the award of the Nobel prize for literature to one of the country’s writers, Svetlana Alexievich.

“I will not vote in these elections because we know who will win,” she said in Minsk after her victory was announced.

“Lukashenko is in a difficult position . . . He’d like to break away from Russia, but who will let him?”

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