BRUSSELS – The European Union imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions on Belarus for the first time on Thursday, targeting its main export industries and access to finance a month after it forced a Ryanair flight to land in Minsk.
The measures include banning EU businesses from importing goods or doing business with Belarusian companies in sectors including banking, petroleum products and potash, a salt used in fertiliser that is the country’s main export.
The sanctions are far stricter than measures imposed in the past, which had mainly consisted of blacklists of Belarusian officials and had little or no impact on the behaviour of President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
EU leaders were outraged by the interception of the Ryanair plane flying between Athens and Vilnius on May 23. Belarusian authorities arrested a dissident journalist and his girlfriend after the plane landed, in an incident which Western countries branded state piracy.
With Lukashenko so far impervious to foreign pressure over disputed elections last August, the EU said it wanted to dramatically escalate pressure.
Diplomats said the decision to impose harsher sanctions was taken with extraordinary speed by the standards of the typically slow-moving EU, reflecting the seriousness with which governments viewed the Ryanair incident. The sanctions were first agreed last Friday by national envoys to the EU and will now be published in full in the bloc’s official journal.
Under the new sanctions, Europeans may not “directly or indirectly sell, supply, transfer or export to anyone in Belarus” communication equipment, technology or software that could be used for monitoring or repression.
Trade in petroleum products, potash and tobacco products is restricted. Access to EU capital markets is now also limited, the EU said. Europeans may not provide insurance or re-insurance to the Belarusian government or public bodies and agencies. The European Investment Bank will halt lending to the country.
Since the Ryanair incident, the EU has also banned overflights of Belarusian territory by its airlines and banished Belarusian carriers from its air space.
The EU, United States, Britain and Canada also expanded blacklists this week, with the EU now banning 166 people from travelling or doing business in Europe, including Russian businessman Mikhail Gutseriyev, Belarus’s largest foreign investor.
One of six former Soviet republics that the EU has offered money, technical assistance and market access to, Belarus is now being sidelined until Lukashenko agrees to new elections and releases political prisoners.
Despite concern that economic sanctions could push Belarus closer to its ally Russia, EU foreign ministers said they had to respond to what they see as unacceptable, repressive behaviour by Lukashenko.
“I do not foresee any democratic transition soon in Belarus,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba told Reuters. “But the EU had no other choice if it wants to stand up for its values.”