"Belarus: not a choice between Russia and the EU"

Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the EEAS, briefed members of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee on the EU response to the ongoing situation in Belarus.
Map of Minsk, Belarus | Source Adobe Stock 317430552

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

26 Aug 2020

The EU is set to impose sanctions on Belarus later this week in the wake of the huge response to public protests at the recent election results in Belarus.

This was the message from Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the EEAS, when she addressed the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs (AFET) committee.

Her comments come as it emerged that two senior members of the opposition body - the Coordination Council of Belarus, Olga Kovalkova and Sergei Dylevsky - were given 10-day jail terms for organising demonstrations in Belarus on Tuesday.

Members of the AFET committee held an extraordinary two-hour meeting on Tuesday to discuss the tense situation in Belarus.

“Sanctions are meant to lead to a change in behaviour and we are also preparing a review of our relations with Belarus” Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the EEAS

Speaking via a video link to MEPs, Schmid said, “We are preparing sanctions and will discuss later this week in Berlin. The idea is to take a decision on this very soon.”

Belarus will be high on the agenda of an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Berlin on Thursday and Friday, where new sanctions on Belarus officials are, said Schmid, likely to be imposed.

She told MEPs, “Sanctions are meant to lead to a change in behaviour and we are also preparing a review of our relations with Belarus.”

Schmid said that Council President Charles Michel had spoken to Russian premier Vladimir Putin about current events in Belarus and that the EU “strongly supports Belarus’ independent sovereignty”. “We trust that Russia will do so too," she told the Committee.

“Belarus is a close neighbour and what happens there matters to us. There has been a massive crackdown by the authorities and widespread brutality by law enforcement agencies. But their suppression has not produced the results they had hoped for.”

“The peaceful demonstrations that we have seen reflect public ambitions and their response to the election results. The public want full, free and fair democratic elections and have called for the release of unlawfully detained political prisoners," she said.

“Our message was and is clear: We do recognise the results, we condemn the brutality of the police forces and support public calls for free and fair elections” David McAllister (DE, EPP)

Schmid told the Committee, “I want to stress that this is not a choice between Russia and the EU."

Committee chair David McAllister, a German MEP, pointed out that MEPs had had to resume business “earlier than anticipated” because of the situation in Belarus.

He told members, “There is a clear desire for democratic change, but the authorities have responded with repression and arrests with many remaining in prison.

“There were no independent observation teams for the election, and they did not meet expected standards. The manipulated results have resulted in the biggest protests ever seen in Belarus and the extreme brutality against protesters is deeply shocking. All this, though, has only served to strengthen the resolve of the public.”

He said events in Belarus had prompted a “quick response from EU” and a “strong reaction” from Parliament.

“Our message was and is clear: We do recognise the results, we condemn the brutality of the police forces and support public calls for free and fair elections.”

Several Committee members took part from their homes while others were in Parliament personally for the meeting, called at short notice to give MEPs a chance to respond to the crisis in Belarus.

Croatian Socialist Tonino Picula said he had been following news from Belarus “with horror.” He said, “This is an authoritarian regime which has massively falsified election results and used violence and torture against the people. The EU must now move to a critical reassessment of Belarus and targeted sanctions. These sanctions must be as effective as possible.”

Latvian EPP Sandra Kalniete said, “I am in no doubt this is a turning point in Belarus history. The international community has said the elections were not free and fair. A revolution is taking place which the Belarus president is trying to suppress in a violent way.”

“The situation there is extremely serious, and the Parliament and Council must press strongly for sanctions” Sandra Kalniete (LV, EPP)

She said the “real” president is Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who later addressed MEPs in a video statement issued from Vilnius where she is currently living.

The MEP said, “It is completely unacceptable that members of the Belarus Cooperation Council have been detained and we should demand their release. The situation there is extremely serious, and the Parliament and Council must press strongly for sanctions.”

Belgian Renew Europe MEP Hilde Vautmans said, “The election was neither free nor fair and events show that the EU needs to sanction all those involved in the repression going on in Belarus.”

“Events, though, also show the need to continue to speak with Russia so as to avoid turning what is an internal conflict into an EU-Russia conflict. So, I welcome any talks with Russia… In any case, we will stand with the people of Belarus for as long as it will take.”

Further comment came from French ID member Thierry Mariani who said, “Sanctions have never been useful and do not see how they can change things now. We do need, though, dialogue with Russia. We also need to help Belarus financially though we also need to know where the money is going.”

German Greens member Reinhard Bütikofer praised the Council for its “firm and measured position” but warned the EU “must not inject geo-political tensions into this conflict.” He said, “The EU should identify a special envoy to deal with the current situation.”

“The election was neither free nor fair and events show that the EU needs to sanction all those involved in the repression going on in Belarus” Hilde Vautmans (BE, RE)

ECR Polish member Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, speaking from Parliament, said, “The Council has been silent on Russia, apart from just saying it should not interfere. Russia is the elephant in the room on Belarus and the fact is that it has already intervened.”

He said, “Russia must not interfere, and the EU must insist on this. Heavy sanctions are also needed and for the EU and US to work together.”

Spanish GUE member Manu Pineda said his group also did not “recognise whatsoever of the election results.

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