MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus has drawn up a black list of opposition figures who are barred from leaving the country in response to a travel ban imposed on Belarussian officials by the European Union, President Alexander Lukashenko said.
The move marks a further downturn in relations with the EU which has been highly critical of his drive against political opponents at home and has withdrawn its ambassadors from the ex-Soviet republic.
The latest opposition member to fall foul of Lukashenko’s new policy tack is Stanislav Shushkevich, the first leader of independent Belarus. He was taken off a train bound for the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on March 18 and was told he could not leave the country.
But Shushkevich, 77, beat the ban by subsequently travelling to neighbouring Russia, which has no border controls with Belarus, and travelling from there to Vilnius where he called on the EU to “strike painfully at the regime” through sanctions.
Speaking in Moscow in an interview with Russia Today television channel, Lukashenko accused Shushkevich and other opponents of running a “fifth column” campaign against him and recommending certain Belarussian officials and organisations to the EU for sanctions.
“Today in the European Union there is a list of so-called ‘no entry’ people which includes your obedient servant,” Lukashenko said, according to a transcript of his comments made available ahead of broadcasting on Thursday.
“This list has been drawn up with the aid of our fifth column which is led by one of its leaders - Stanislav Stanislavovich Shushkevich,” he said.
“So we have done the same thing. We have not introduced it yet fully. But we will introduce it. They (opponents) gave the West names, organisations, companies and are insisting that economic sanctions be brought in,” he added.
In Minsk, foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said: “The EU’s practice of constantly widening sanctions must be stopped ... When one side actively brings pressure to bear, there is no chance of any moves by the other side to de-escalate the tension.”
Shushkevich, one of the principal players in historic talks in 1991 with former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin which decided the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is an old adversary of Lukashenko and has become sharper in his criticism following a clampdown on the opposition.
He told Reuters last year that he draws a derisory state pension equivalent to 40 U.S. cents per month but supports himself by giving lectures and attending conferences in Poland and the Baltics.
Despite the ban, he reached Vilnius via Russia on Wednesday where he urged the EU to maintain “calculated sanctions” against the Lukashenko leadership.
“It is rubbish to say that economic sanctions will harm the Belarussian people because Lukashenko is the worst harm of all ... I hope that the European Union will find the kind of steps which will strike painfully at the regime. Punishment of the regime is definitely not punishment of the people,” he told Reuters in the Lithuanian capital.
He said one such step could be taking the 2014 world ice hockey championships away from Belarus.
Relations between the 27-member bloc and Minsk have worsened since a disputed December 2010 election.
Mass street protests followed the vote and Belarussian courts jailed many of Lukashenko’s political opponents.
Two of them, including former deputy foreign minister and rights activist Andrei Sannikov, are still being held in jail after convictions for creating mass disorder.
Opposition activists in Minsk say the Belarus black list includes about 10 political opponents of Lukashenko.
“This is in fact a list of hostages of the regime,” Andrei Dynko, editor of the opposition newspaper Nasha Niva who was stopped from travelling to Lithuania last week, told Reuters.
“When he later finally frees political prisoners, this will be enough for the EU to close its eyes to everything he has done previously,” said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.
Ties with the EU have been further strained by the executions of two men who were convicted of planting a bomb in a Minsk metro station last April which killed 15 people and injured about 200.
Belarus is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty and the executions went ahead after Lukashenko refused to pardon them despite appeals from the mother of one of the accused and Western institutions.
Lukashenko, in his interview with Russia Today, said the outcome was a “real tragedy” for him and he felt for the parents of the condemned men. But he said he could not act otherwise.
Asked about Western appeals for clemency, he said: “This was an act of pure criminality, catastrophic criminality, for which there could be no pardon.”
Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Vilnius; Writing By Richard Balmforth Editing by Maria Golovnina