BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will reinstate a visa ban on President Alexander Lukashenko and other Belarussian officials next week in response to his crackdown on protests following his disputed re-election, EU diplomats said.
Western governments have grown increasingly concerned over human rights violations in Belarus and have pressed Lukashenko to free scores of protesters held after the December 19 vote, which the opposition and international monitors say was rigged.
EU foreign ministers are expected to agree to reimpose visa bans that were suspended by the EU in 2008 to encourage reforms in the ex-Soviet republic, when they meet in Brussels Monday.
“In principle, it is agreed, visa restrictions will be put back in place,” one EU diplomat said.
In Minsk, Lukashenko, once a Soviet state farm director who has ruled the former Soviet republic of 10 million in autocratic style since 1994, sneered at possible EU action.
“You threaten me with sanctions. Good luck with that. I have been living with these sanctions for 10 years already. They (in the West) thought they could play a game with us and lullaby us while creating a fifth column behind our backs,” he told the Belarussian parliament Thursday.
The EU imposed travel sanctions and froze assets of Lukashenko and other Belarus officials in 2006 after his last re-election which also led to street protests. The financial measures remain in place and more are likely to be introduced.
More than 150 officials will be barred from the 27 EU states, including some responsible for the post-election violence, the diplomat said.
Diplomats said the EU will also not hold any talks with Minsk over a financial assistance program for reforms for now.
Scores of opposition activists, including several challengers for the presidency, were arrested on December 19.
Authorities in Belarus have indicated some of them could go on trial as early as next month for instigating mass unrest, a charge which carries up to 15 years jail.
Referring to the detainees, Lukashenko said: “Why are you sitting in a detention cell? Just give three honest answers to three questions and you can go home to your children. Lukashenko is not bloodthirsty.”
Authorities allege that some EU states financed opposition groups and that German and Polish intelligence services incited activists to try to stage a coup. Berlin and Warsaw have said this is absurd.
Lukashenko has brushed off U.S. and EU criticism and warned he could take countermeasures against states that impose sanctions.
Belarus is an important transit route for Russian energy, with a fifth of Russia’s gas supplied to Europe crossing its borders, as well as a significant portion of oil. Moscow also sees it as a buffer between it and NATO.
Lukashenko needs foreign cash to keep the economy afloat and has manoeuvred between Russia and the EU, as well as China and Venezuela, often switching sides to win pledges of investment and financial aid.
Additional reporting by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk and Richard Balmforth in Kiev; Editing by Louise Ireland