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Ambassadors recalled from Belarus

February 29, 2012

The ever-testy relationship between the European Union and Belarus has significantly deteriorated over the past 36 hours. Yesterday, Belarus recalled its own ambassadors to the EU and Poland, and also asked the EU and Polish ambassadors to Belarus to leave the country. In response, the EU announced all ambassadors from every member country would leave Belarus.

That Belarus would single out Poland is not surprising. In January 2011, Belarus accused Poland and Germany of providing opposition groups with funding in an effort to overthrow Lukashenko and install a “puppet government.” These claims were examined at length (with seemingly fake WikiLeaks documents providing the ‘smoking gun’) in a program called “A Lesson of Polish” that aired on Belarusian television on February 12, 2012. The title mirrors that of a documentary by Polish filmmaker Miroslaw Dembinski called “A Lesson of Belarusian,” which follows anti-Lukashenko activists in Belarus in early 2006. Also, when members of the Polish parliament tried to meet with leaders of Belarus’s Polish minority population a week ago, they were not granted entry into Belarus.

The EU-Belarus relationship seemed to be in a period of recovery from 2008-10. During this period, previous EU sanctions were relaxed and Belarus became a member of the Eastern Partnership, bringing the post-Soviet nation as close to the EU as it had ever been. Things took a decisive turn for the worse in December 2010, when the country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, was elected to a fourth term with approximately 80 percent of the vote. Opposition protests that followed in the capital city of Minsk led to the arrest of hundreds, including seven of the nine candidates that opposed Lukashenko in the election. The EU responded by re-instituting sanctions on Belarus—mainly visa bans and asset freezes for top Belarusian officials. A Belarusian delegation did not attend the Eastern Partnership Summit of September 2011 in Warsaw, supposedly because Lukashenko was not invited while the presidents of all other member countries were.

A logical question that arises from this mess is whether Belarus is a viable member of the Eastern Partnership going forward. Yet while removal of Belarus from the Eastern Partnership would seem like a tough statement, Lukashenko appears fully content to burn bridges with the EU—he’ll always have somewhere to turn as long as he maintains Russian favor. With sanctions in their current form only driving Belarus further away, the EU may need to alter its approach if it doesn’t want to play the waiting game.

On the subject of Belarus, a new documentary about Alexander Lukashenko is set to premiere in London tomorrow. “Europe’s Last Dictator,” parts of which were secretly shot in Belarus by English filmmaker Matthew Charles, is a thoroughly damning portrayal of the Belarusian leader. The premiere event will feature the presence of another controversial figure: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

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