European Scrutiny Committee Contents

17 EU relations with Belarus


Council Decision concerning restrictive measures against certain officials of Belarus

Legal baseArticles 29 EU; unanimity
DepartmentForeign and Commonwealth Office
Basis of considerationEM of 8 October 2010
Previous Committee ReportNone; but see (31171) —: HC 5-iii (2009-10), chapter 17 (9 December 2009) ; also see (30507) — : HC 19-xiii (2008-09), chapter 10 (1 April 2009); also see (30076) —: HC 16-xxxiii ( 2007-08), chapter 5 (29 October 2008); and (27458) 8836/06 and (27459) — : HC 34-xxviii (2005-06), chapter 15 (10 May 2006)
To be discussed in CouncilOctober 2010
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared; further information requested


17.1 The Belarus "Country Profile" on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website continues to catalogue a litany of repressive and undemocratic behaviour since Alyaksandr Lukashenko won the first Presidential elections in July 1994.[62] The first three paragraphs read as follows:

"Belarus's human rights record since President Lukashenko came to power in 1994 has been poor. A September 2006 report by Adrian Severin, the UN Special Rapporteur appointed in 2004 by the 60th UN Commission on Human Rights, was highly critical of the situation. This is one of many reports to cite numerous human rights violations including persistent accounts of harassment of NGOs, the independent media, opposition political parties, educational institutions, religious organisations, and trade unions.

"This pattern of repression has been particularly evident in the build up to parliamentary and presidential elections, when opposition figures were put under intense pressure and numerous independent media outlets were suspended or closed.

"These concerns include the disappearance of four opponents of the regime in 1999/2000, including former Belarusian Interior Minister Yury Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar, a deputy of Belarus' 13th Supreme Soviet. Despite appeals from the international community, the Belarusian authorities have not investigated satisfactorily these disappearances. The EU repeatedly called on the Belarusian authorities to open a truly independent investigation, but the Belarusians failed to act. In response, in September 2004 the EU decided to apply travel restrictions against those Belarusian officials named in the Pourgourides report on 'Disappeared Persons in Belarus' as key actors in the disappearances (this report was adopted by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in April 2004). Those subject to the restrictions include the former Head of the Presidential Administration and current Head of the Security Council, Viktor Sheiman, the former Minister for Sports and Tourism, Yuri Sivakov, and the Minister of the Interior, Vladimir Naumov. Since 2005 activists have maintained public awareness of the disappearances, including through a monthly Day of Solidarity since 16 September 2005, the anniversary the 1999 disappearance of Gonchar and Krasoviski.

"Further sanctions were imposed following the Presidential elections of March 2006. These failed to meet OSCE standards. There was an arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions as well as a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression. There was also violent suppression of protests and the detention of peaceful protesters. In response the EU decided to adopt restrictive measures against President Lukashenko, the Belarusian leadership and officials personally responsible for the violations of international electoral standards. These measures took the form of a visa ban and an asset freeze and were adopted in addition to those taken by the EU in September 2004."

17.2 The EU measure were renewed the following September, given that there had been no independent investigation into the disappearances, nor any reform of the electoral code, in line with OSCE recommendations, nor any concrete action to respect human rights with respect to peaceful demonstrations: on the contrary, the situation had continued to deteriorate.

17.3 At the 7 November 2005 and 30 January 2006 GAERCs, EU Foreign Ministers stated their readiness to take restrictive measures against those responsible if the Presidential election in Belarus on 19 March was not conducted in line with OSCE and other international standards. According to the OSCE/ODIHR International Election Observation Mission, the Belarus Presidential election failed to meet OSCE commitments; and, following the election, peaceful demonstrations in Minsk were again forcibly broken up, and demonstrators and opposition leaders arrested. The 24 March 2006 European Council accordingly agreed that the EU would take restrictive measures against those responsible for the violation of international electoral standards, including President Lukashenko. At the 10 April GAERC, EU Foreign Ministers agreed to impose a travel ban on 31 officials (in addition to the original six; Common Position 2006/276/CFSP, repealing Common Position 2004/661/CFSP).

17.4 On 10 May 2006, the previous Committee cleared amendments to Common Position 2006/276/CFSP and an accompanying proposed Regulation, which imposed an assets freeze on those individuals (plus an additional five) and on any person or entity associated with them. The amendments also made some technical amendments to the annexes to Common Position 2006/276/CFSP. Conditions for releasing frozen assets were set out in the instruments.

17.5 Both the travel ban and assets freeze lists included President Lukashenko. Common Position 2006/276/CFSP was renewed by Common Position 2007/173/CFSP on 19 March 2007. On 7 April 2008 the Council adopted Common Position 2008/288/CFSP extending the measures by 12 further months until 10 April 2009.

17.6 In so doing, the Council agreed that the restrictive measures provided for by Common Position 2006/276/CFSP should be extended for a period of 12 months, but that the travel restrictions aimed at certain officials of Belarus — with the exception of those involved in the 1999-2000 disappearances and the President of the Central Electoral Commission — should not apply for a reviewable period of six months, so as to encourage dialogue with the Belarus authorities and the adoption of measures to reinforce democracy and respect for human rights; at the end of this six-month period, the Council would re-examine the situation in Belarus and evaluate the progress made by the Belarus authorities on reforming the Electoral Code to bring it into line with OSCE commitments and other international standards and consider any other practical action to strengthen respect for democratic values, human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression and of the media, as well as the freedom of assembly and political association and the rule of law.

17.7 The previous Committee's most recent Report outlines subsequent shifts in the EU position, as differences emerged among Member States about how best to handle Belarus, given the EU's concerns but also its concern that an increasingly isolated Belarus would be drawn closer to an increasingly assertive and difficult Russia (with unspoken anxieties about the gas supply situation, where Belarus is a key link in the chain).

17.8 As that Report notes, the then Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint) said there had been some signs that Belarus might be interested in increasing its contacts with Member States and willing to adopt a more moderate stance on other issues. The release of its last three internationally recognised political prisoners in late August 2008 met one of the 12 conditions for engagement set out by the EU in the Commission document 'What the EU could offer Belarus' published in November 2006.[63] Meanwhile, President Lukashenko had promised that parliamentary elections on 28 September would be free and fair. Whilst the initial report by OSCE monitors does not support this (it said that the elections failed to meet OSCE standards) Belarus was significantly more co-operative in their interactions with OSCE monitors.

17.9 The then Minister said that this represented less progress than she would have liked; but she shared the view of other EU Member States that "isolating Belarus will not promote further positive progress but rather focus the leadership on strengthening their ties with Russia whilst failing to deliver on EU demands." She therefore supported the EU consensus in favour of suspending the visa ban for six months whilst renewing the restrictive measures for a further 12 months, "backed up by a strong statement from Council Members", as "the approach most likely to encourage the Belarusians to make further progress on the road toward human rights and democracy."

17.10 The then Minister went on to say that:

"We will continue to follow a path of critical engagement ensuring Belarus understands that the process begun by the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC)[64] must be sustained by further Belarusian steps. Whilst it is unlikely that all 12 conditions for engagement will be met over the next six months we expect to see some positive progress, particularly in the areas of freedom of the media, civil society and elections. In addition to pushing for the EU to set down clear modalities measuring progress we will continue to deliver clear and firm messages basing our demands explicitly on the EU's '12 Propositions.'[65]

"The lifting of the visa ban will enable us to engage at senior levels and create personal incentives for senior officials in Belarus, who will be keen to ensure that the ban is not imposed again.

"The proposal gives Belarus a six month window in which to demonstrate concrete improvements in human rights and democracy. We hope that Belarus will make the most of this opportunity to rebuild the relationship with the EU. If Belarus fails to move toward the necessary reforms, it ensures that the restrictions will be automatically re-imposed at the end of that six month period. A unanimous decision will be required to extend the decision by another six months."

The previous Committee's assessment

17.11 The previous Committee said that it was clear from its examination in chapter 4 of the same Report of a similar process, and change of approach, regarding another repressive regime — in that case Uzbekistan[66] — why it was somewhat sceptical of the notion of a "probationary period" during which progress in relation to clear benchmarks would determine whether or not a temporary suspension is made permanent.

17.12 As with the revisions to the Common Position on Uzbekistan, it was also concerned that it was effectively being presented, not with a proposal to be scrutinised, but with a fait accompli — a decision announced in the 13 October GAERC Conclusions, followed by changes to the Common Position to give it effect. So it asked the then Minister to explain the position she had taken, and why she had handled the process in this way. The first part of that evidence session (held on 4 February 2009)[67] was devoted to a discussion out of which the Minister, in referring to the six-month deadline, suggested "a conversation about that before we get to the final stage of renewal or extension of that package."[68]

The then Minister's letter of 9 March 2009

17.13 In a subsequent letter of 9 March 2009, the then Minister reported that the EU had made clear its five priorities — no new political prisoners, freer media, reform of electoral code, liberalisation of NGO environment, and freedom of assembly — and that the Belarusians had "refrained from flagrant human rights abuses" and introduced "a number of small reforms." But progress against the five priorities had been mixed, the positive changes had not been systemic and could be reversed and she was concerned by some negative steps in the immediately preceding couple of weeks — including the arrest of three human rights activists, two of whom had been recognised as political prisoners by the international community during previous periods of detention.

17.14 The then Minister went on to say that, while some Member States shared her concerns, most were leaning towards renewal of the suspension on the grounds that there had been some progress; though renewal could demonstrate the EU's commitment to engagement with Belarus, and "tie them closer to international organisations and internationally accepted standards through the Eastern Partnership and the Council of Europe, so encouraging further reform", renewal on the basis of the limited reforms so far, the Minister said, "risks suggesting that we were satisfied with progress, weakening an important lever for further reform" and "could lead them to believe that sanctions would be lifted altogether when they come up for renewal in October." Conversely, the Minister said, re-imposition could be interpreted negatively by international bodies other than the IMF and jeopardise the additional assistance that their $2.5bn loan in January assumed, and make Belarus vulnerable to Russian influence, which would in turn be unlikely to help the reform process.

17.15 Overall, the Minister concluded, her judgement on whether to support renewal of the suspension would be based on the most effective way of supporting reform; the Belarusian reaction to whichever step the EU took was unpredictable, with neither option providing guarantees of improved performance; an important part of the effectiveness of her approach would be achieving EU unity, "so Belarus was left in no doubt about our messages", which unity would be needed when the Common Position was due for renewal in October, without which the sanctions would lapse. Given "these challenges", the Minister said her position would "continue to evolve in the run up to the GAERC", and she would "inform the committee in the usual way of the outcome of the Council."

The then Minister's letter of 30 March 2009

17.16 In a further letter of 30 March 2009, the then Minister responded to issues raised in the previous Committee's follow up letter of 25 March 2009 as follows:

"Nikolay Avtukhovich, Yuri Leonov and Vladimir Asipenka have been arrested for arson, and are currently in pre-trial detention. We have serious concerns about the independence of the Belarusian justice system and may in the future come to categorise these individuals as human rights defenders or political prisoners, but it is currently too early to make that conclusion. This view is shared by the Belarus Helsinki Commission who were consulted by officials at our Embassy in Minsk earlier this week. The Belarus Helsinki Commission are following the case especially closely because Nikolay Avtukhovich and Yuri Leonov have previously been recognised as political prisoners.

"Until the three individuals are released, or until the Belarus Helsinki Commission consider them political prisoners, we will work with our EU colleagues to continue to urge the Belarusian authorities to ensure that their case is dealt with promptly and fairly.

"We will make clear to the Belarusian authorities that any action that results in the Belarusian Helsinki Commission considering these individuals as political prisoners will have a significant impact on Belarus's relationship with the EU.

"The EU undertook to review the provisions of Common Position 2008/844/CFSP before 13 April 2009. If the current draft Common Position is not adopted by that date, the EU will be unable to review those provisions and EU colleagues may feel that the UK is not serious about its obligations under EU legislation. Furthermore, it may send a signal to the Belarus authorities that the EU is not united on this issue — a position it will exploit to undermine the effectiveness of the sanctions measures. It is possible, therefore, that we will seek to override scrutiny in order for the Common Position to be adopted on 6 April 2009."

The previous Committee's further assessment

17.17 Given the clear differences of view between Member States that the Minister herself discussed, the previous Committee thought that it would be odd if the Belarus authorities had not already concluded that the EU was not united on this issue — especially since she had again failed to state that, should the individuals in question be classified as political prisoners, the travel ban would be reimposed.

17.18 The previous Committee also found it disturbing that she should use the possibility of something that the Belarus authorities must know was lacking as a basis upon which to threaten to over-ride scrutiny.

17.19 The previous Committee left it to the House to judge whether or not this was "a good outcome", particularly as had been said that it would be developments in this area of "common values" and governance that would determine what place Belarus would have in the then proposed new Eastern Partnership between the EU and six Eastern neighbours — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine[69] (which proposal was debated in the European Committee on 27 April 2009.)[70]

17.20 The previous Committee looked forward to further information from the Minister as the situation developed, particularly with regard to the arrested individuals and in the run-up to the proposed review.

17.21 In the meantime, it cleared the document.[71]

17.22 Common Position 2009/314/CFSP was adopted on 6 April 2009 and extended the restrictive measures until 15 March 2010, with a partial suspension of the travel restrictions until 15 December 2009.

17.23 On 9 December 2009, the previous Committee considered a subsequent Council Decision that superseded, and therefore repealed Common Position 2009/314/CFSP. It extended the restrictive measures provided for by Common Position 2006/276/CFSP until 31 October 2010. At the same time the travel restrictions imposed on certain leading figures in Belarus, with the exception of those involved in the disappearances which occurred in 1999 and 2000 and of the President of the Central Electoral Commission, were to be further suspended. As before, the Council reserved the right, at any time, to decide by unanimity to re-apply the travel restrictions, if necessary in the light of actions by Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights. In any event, in October 2010, the Council would review of the restrictive measures, taking into account the situation in Belarus.

17.24 In his accompanying Explanatory Memorandum of 25 November 2009, the then Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant) says that the 17 November GAERC agreed that, "due to an absence of tangible progress in areas identified in the Council Conclusions of 13 October 2008, the restrictive measures in place on Belarus should be extended until 31 October 2010, but to encourage further reform, the suspension of the travel restrictions were also extended for the same period." He professed himself:

"disappointed that Belarus has not made more progress since March, and remain concerned about the cases of Nikolay Avtukhovich, Yuri Leonov and Vladimir Asipenka, activists who were arrested for arson earlier this year. Neither Amnesty International nor the Belarusian Helsinki Committee consider these activists political prisoners. In May 2009, Amnesty International announced that they recognised as political prisoners 11 people arrested for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration against regulations on small businesses in January 2008. Since then, three of the activists have been released.

"However, we believe that the Council Conclusions[72] recognise the mixed progress made by Belarus over the past year, and reflect the balance of views between EU Member States. This outcome sends a united message to the Belarusian authorities that we are not yet satisfied with their progress. This extension enables the EU to maintain leverage whilst still promoting engagement. Appetite for sanctions within the EU has diminished so the Belarusian authorities may have believed they could sit sanctions out and wait for the measures to lapse. This renewal makes it clear that the EU is not yet convinced of the Belarus authorities' commitment to reform."

The previous Committee's assessment

17.25 In clearing the Council Decision, the previous Committee said that it was reporting this further extension so fully because of the degree of interest in the House in EU relations with both the EU and Russia's "near neighbours", and in EU sanctions policy around the globe. They again left it to others in the House to judge the effectiveness of the EU's policy, and its shifts since 2006, in relation to its avowed objectives (which it set out in Annexes 1-3 of its Report).[73]

17.26 Council Decision 2009/969/CFSP extended the restrictive measures until October 2010, whilst suspending the travel restrictions imposed on certain leading figures in Belarus, with the exception of those involved in the disappearances which occurred in 1999 and 2000 and of the President of the Central Electoral Commission.

The proposed Council Decision

17.27 This draft Council Decision extends the restrictive measures (asset freeze and travel ban) provided for by Common Position 2006/276/CFSP until 31 October 2011. At the same time the application of the travel restrictions imposed on certain leading figures in Belarus, with the exception of those involved in the disappearances which occurred in 1999 and 2000 and of the President of the Central Electoral Commission, will be further suspended.

17.28 Article 4(1) of the draft Council Decision has been amended to bring the language into line with article 30 of the Lisbon Treaty. Articles 4(2) and 4(3) reflect recent best practice concerning the requirement to notify those individuals subject to restrictive measures of the reasons for their listing, in order to allow such persons the opportunity to present observations to the Council.

17.29 As before, the Council may, at any time, decide by unanimity to re-apply the travel restrictions, if necessary, in the light of actions by the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights.

The Government's view

17.30 In his Explanatory Memorandum of 8 October 2010, the Minister for Europe (David Lidington) says that the procedures for designating individuals under the EU visa ban are fully compliant with fundamental rights: individuals may only be listed where evidence exists that they are engaged in the activities listed under Article 1 of Council Common Position, and would be entitled to challenge the implementation or application of such a ban in the Member State's courts; and, as previously, Member States may grant exemptions from the travel ban for specified reasons including, inter alia, where travel is justified on the grounds of urgent humanitarian need.

17.31 After briefly reviewing the history of the EU's engagement with Belarus in the same terms as did his predecessors, the Minister says:

"Over the last year greater EU engagement has not delivered improvements in human rights or democracy. The Belarus authorities have taken a few, mostly cosmetic, steps but progress has stalled, and in some areas deteriorated. Already, in the run up to the Presidential elections, signs of progress are not encouraging. Repressive tactics are being employed in order to discredit opposition parties, whilst intimidating the limited independent media sector. In addition, the President's rhetoric on relations with the EU over the last few months continues to be negative.

"Under these circumstances, lifting the sanctions would send the wrong signal to Belarus and the wider public. It would suggest that we do not consider human rights a priority. And lifting the sanctions before elections that we expect will fail to meet international standards would be particularly unfortunate timing.

"But re-imposing sanctions could actually be counterproductive for our broader policy of engagement and for our specific need to maintain a dialogue with the authorities ahead of the Presidential elections."


17.32 We are reporting this Council Decision to the House for the same reasons as did the previous Committee.

17.33 In so doing, we note that the Minister comments in only very general terms about what has happened over the past ten months, particularly in relation to the EU's benchmarks. He also makes no mention of the detained individuals referred to in previous discussion with his predecessors.

17.34 The Presidential elections will be the next test. Though the Minister makes no mention of the date, they are to be held on 19 December. President Lukashenko will run for a fourth term. According to press reports, his closest challenger, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, pulled out last month, saying he believed the poll would be rigged.

17.35 We presume that the EU will review the outcome. Bearing in mind the Council's proviso (c.f. paragraph 0.29 above), we would like the Minister to write to us then about that review and with his views on the best way forward, and to include information about progress against the EU's Twelve Points and the detained individuals mentioned above.

17.36 We now clear the document.

62   See Belarus Country Profile at Back

63   See for the full text of the paper. Back

64   The previous Committee took this to be a reference to the Council Conclusions on Belarus, which are available at and at Annex 1 of this chapter of our Report. Back

65   These are set out in the Council Non-Paper to which the Minister referred, and which were reproduced at Annex 2 of the relevant chapter of the previous Committee's most recent Report - see headnote. Back

66   See (30048) -: HC 16-xxxiii (2007-08), chapter 4 (29 October 2008). Back

67   Published on 2 March 2009 as HC 231. Back

68   Ibid, Ev 4. Back

69   See (30248) 16940/08 and (30249) 16941/08: HC 19-xi (2008-09), chapter 5 (18 March 2009). Back

70   For the record of that debate, see Back

71   See headnote: (30507) - : HC 19- xii (2008-09), chapter 10 (1 April 2009). Back

72   The previous Committee took these to be those adopted by the 17 November GAERC and reproduced at Annex 3 of of its most recent Report (and also available at  Back

73   See headnote: HC 5-iii (2009-10), chapter 17 (9 December 2009). Back

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