The world has looked on with growing horror as, over the last six weeks, the regime in Belarus has ruthlessly and systematically sought to dismantle the country’s civil society and emerging opposition.
The violence on the night of the Dec. 19 presidential election was shocking. But while the attention of the world’s media has since turned to focus on other events, the repression in Belarus has continued.
Four presidential candidates and numerous political and civil society activists remain in detention; we have no independent verification of their well-being. Many of them face years in prison on charges of organizing riots, when there is mounting evidence that the election-night violence was staged by the authorities themselves. We have seen curiously stilted recantations delivered by detained opposition activists and broadcast by the state media. We can only speculate as to what prompted them to change their tune overnight.
The regime is also pursuing other means of prosecuting those Belarusians who have dared to raise an independent voice. Every day homes and offices across Belarus are being raided and trashed. More than 200 people have been taken in for interrogation by the Belarusian secret service; this is in addition to the 700 who were arrested on the night of Dec. 19. We hear reports of lawyers being disbarred from practice for speaking up about the abuses to which their clients have been subjected. We are about to see mass expulsions from universities of those students who joined the protests, as happened following the last presidential election in 2006.
There is a serious crisis in the European neighborhood. We must act. At the upcoming European Union Foreign Affairs Council we will call for the EU to reinstate a harsh package of sanctions against Belarus and to consider further measures against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. We cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening today in a fellow European country. President Lukashenko has made his choice and we have no choice but to respond accordingly.
If Belarus turns its back on the world, it will be bad for Belarus. It will damage investor confidence and put it at loggerheads with the path of freedom and justice that the rest of the world prizes.
How did we reach this state of affairs?
Just over a month ago there was a feeling that Belarus was moving ever so slowly in the right direction. Several candidates had been allowed to stand in the presidential election; they had even been given limited media exposure. Political prisoners had been freed. Tentative overtures had been made to the EU for closer economic ties.
We in the EU were ready to respond, cautiously, with greater engagement in return for continued progress toward international norms. In November, we renewed EU sanctions on Belarus but chose to hold them in suspension pending the conduct of December’s election. Then came the night of Dec. 19 and its aftermath, shattering the illusion of tolerance and revealing President Lukashenko’s true colors.
We are determined to take action against the Belarusian regime. At the same time, we will not abandon the people of Belarus to their fate. We will continue to support Belarusian civil society, indeed we will step up our efforts. We want the Belarusian people to understand that their fellow Europeans stand with them. And when Belarus chooses to rejoin the wider European community of nations, we will be here waiting, ready and willing to welcome her.