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Belarus Weekly: EU imposes new sanctions on Belarus, targeting sanction circumvention

by Maria Yeryoma July 5, 2024 5:13 PM 10 min read
President of the European Council Charles Michel (L), Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen pose after a press conference at the end of the European Council Summit at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 28, 2024. (John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)
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The EU imposes new sanctions on Belarus, targeting sanction circumvention.

Amid rising border tensions between Ukraine and Belarus, Belarusian official bolsters nuclear threats.

Ukraine returns five of its citizens held in Belarusian prisons in a latest prisoner swap with Russia.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko suggests possible release of seriously ill political prisoners.

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Belarus sentences in absentia 20 exiled political analysts and journalists to 10-11 years in prison, continuing the crackdown on dissent.

Lukashenko reshuffles his government and administration in a move seen as a preparation for the upcoming 2025 presidential elections.

EU imposes new sanctions on Belarus, aiming to curtail sanctions circumvention

The European Union imposed new sanctions on Belarus on June 29 in response to the country’s involvement in Russia's war against Ukraine, the EU Council announced.

Days before the EU Council presidency transferred from Belgium to Russia-leaning Hungary, the EU ambassadors agreed on a new sanction package that expands current restrictions on Russia and Belarus with the aim of curtailing sanctions circumvention.

"These comprehensive measures aim at mirroring several of the restrictive measures already in place against Russia, and thereby address the issue of circumvention stemming from the high degree of integration existing between the Russian and Belarusian economies," the EU Council statement reads.

The export ban covers dual-use and advanced goods and technologies capable of enhancing Belarusian industrial capacities, maritime navigation and technologies, and luxury goods.

Direct or indirect imports of Belarusian gold and diamonds, helium, coal, and mineral products, including crude oil, are prohibited to restrict the regime’s sources of revenues. The restrictions extend to road transit, banning trailers and semi-trailers registered in Belarus from transporting goods within the bloc.

The EU also banned the transit through Belarus of dual-use goods and technologies, or goods that may contribute to the country's defense industry.

The new restrictions oblige EU exporters to add a so-called “no-Belarus clause” in their contracts, ensuring that sensitive goods and technology, battlefield goods, firearms, and ammunition do not reach Belarus via their contractors and third-country subsidiaries.

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anatoly Hlaz said the country had prepared “a set of asymmetric measures,” in response to the new EU sanctions.

Belarus has been a key ally of Moscow and supported Russian aggression against Ukraine, though it has not committed its own forces directly to the hostilities. The EU introduced the 14th round of sanctions against Russia on June 24 to further restrict profits from Russia's energy industry.

EU states agree on new sanctions package against Belarus to ‘strengthen measures’ in response to Russia’s war
“Belarus must no longer serve as a route to circumvent our sanctions against Russia,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Belarusian general makes nuclear threats amid intensified border tensions with Ukraine

Chief of the Belarusian General Staff Pavel Muraveiko has said the tactical nuclear weapons that Russia deployed in Belarus might be used if the sovereignty or independence of Belarus were to be threatened, Belarusian state-run news outlet Belta reported on June 30.

“We've learned how to handle these weapons. We know how to apply them confidently,” Muraveiko said during a TV broadcast, according to Belarusian state news agency Belta.

"We’re able to do it. And you can be sure: we will do it if there is a threat to the sovereignty and independence of our country," he went on.

The nuclear threat follows an intensification of cross-border tensions between Belarus and Ukraine.

On June 20, Belarusian State Border Committee made an unsubstantiated claim that Ukraine was moving additional military forces, allegedly including special operations forces, to its borders with Belarus.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said the country had stepped up its air defense capabilities, aviation, and artillery within a snap inspection in the regions bordering Ukraine.

Ukraine’s State Customs Service spokesperson, Andriy Demchenko, dismissed the claims, saying that Ukraine was not threatening, but was forced to protect itself, as "Belarus continues to support terrorists and once before opened the border for Russian invaders.”

In the ensuing round of accusations on June 28-29, Colonel Vadim Lukashevich, a high-ranking Belarusian military official, said that Ukrainian forces had allegedly stationed military equipment, including U.S.-produced, in Zhytomyr Oblast, near the border with Belarus.

Lukashevich also claimed that Ukraine had allegedly laid mines and set up other explosives near the border. Lukashevich believes that this indicates that Ukrainian forces plan “further assaults against Belarus, sabotage, and terrorist acts.”

He did not provide evidence to substantiate his claims. On June 29, Belarus deployed additional air defense forces, alleging that Ukraine was threatening “critical infrastructure facilities" with drones.

The Ukrainian Security and Defense Council's Center for Countering Disinformation said in May that Russia may conduct a new psychological operation aimed at “stirring up mass panic” in Ukraine. The plan was to force Kyiv to believe that Belarusian troops would join Russia's war against Ukraine, according to the center.

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Ukraine exchanges 5 prisoners kept in Belarus’ prisons in recent swap with Russia

Five out of ten Ukrainian citizens returned from captivity in a recent prisoner swap with Russia had been held in Belarusian prisons, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on June 28.

The release of the prisoners was part of a prisoner exchange that began on June 25, the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War reported.

Some of those returned in the exchange, which was brokered by the United Arab Emirates and the Vatican, were Nariman Dzhelyal, deputy head of the assembly of the ethnic Crimean Tatar community, who was taken prisoner by Russian occupation forces in 2021; priests of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Bohdan Heleta and Ivan Levytskyi, and civilians Olena Pekh and Valerii Matiushchenko.

The Ukrainian citizens liberated from Belarus included Natalia Zakharenko, Pavlo Kupriyenko, Kateryna Briukhanova, and Mykola Shvets, accused by the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko of committing an act of terrorism on Feb. 26, 2023 that damaged a Russian A-50 long-range radar aircraft stationed at Machulischy air base near Minsk.

Shvets was captured and forced to “confess” to being a Ukrainian Security Service officer, who had been “left behind” upon fulfilling his mission. Belarusian propaganda aired the sham confession, and repeatedly stated that Ukraine would not be able to free its citizen, who was held in a Belarusian KGB security service pre-trial detention facility.

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WTF is wrong with Russia?

Recognized political prisoner Natalia Zakharenko, who was volunteering to help transport Ukrainian refugees to and from Belarus, went missing in July 2023 after entering Belarus. She was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment on March 5, 2024, on espionage charges.

Another Ukrainian civilian, Pavlo Kupriyenko, was sentenced to seven years on charges of undercover activities. The Belarusian regime declared him an “extremist.” Ukrainian civilian Liudmyla Goncharenko faced the same charges, but her sentence remains unknown.

Interpreter Kateryna Briukhanova, born in Kherson, was convicted of aiding extremist activities and branded an “extremist” by the Lukashenko regime for filming Russian troop movements in Belarus and sharing the footage with a local news outlet.

Lukashenko claimed he had released prisoner Shvets at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for Metropolitan Jonathan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The former members of Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s United Transitional Cabinet, Valery Kavaleuski, and Belarusian political analysts have suggested that the Lukashenko regime was not a party to the negotiations.

In March 2023, Ukraine’s ambassador-at-large, Igor Kyzym, previously serving as Ukraine’s ambassador in Minsk, claimed there were seven Ukrainians in Belarusian prisons, who had been accused of espionage and deprived of consular support.

Viasna Human Rights Center advocate Pavel Sapelka welcomed the liberation of political prisoners, and said more Ukrainians, as well as Belarusians jailed for supporting Ukraine, could be liberated from Belarusian prisons with help from the Ukrainian authorities. According to Viasna, at least 10 Ukrainian citizens charged with “undercover activities” and “espionage” remain in Belarusian jails. The fate of five more Ukrainians shown in propaganda films and facing serious accusations remains unknown.

As of June 28, a total of 3,310 Ukrainians had been freed from Russian captivity. Kyiv has said it aims to conduct an all-for-all prisoner exchange – this was one of the subjects discussed at Ukraine’s peace summit in Switzerland in mid-June.

Lukashenko: some ‘seriously ill’ political prisoners could be released

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has said that “seriously ill” opponents of his regime might soon be released, Russian state news agency TASS reported on July 2.

Speaking at an official Independence Day gala, Lukashenko, who has excluded those convicted on political grounds from two rounds of prisoner amnesties, suddenly announced that prisoners suffering from severe diseases could be released.

“We have to act humanely,” TASS quoted Lukashenko as saying. “Don’t be surprised if in a few days very seriously ill people, ‘ours’ as they (the opponents of the regime) call them, the ones who didn’t manage to escape (from the country) and are in places not so remote (in detention), who were breaking and destroying (things), will be released."

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko gestures during a joint press conference after Russian-Belarusian meeting at the Palace of Independence, on May 24, 2024, in Minsk, Belarus. (Contributor/Getty Images)

Lukashenko did not specify the number of prisoners that might be eligible for release, but noted that this would primarily affect prisoners suffering from cancer. Among those behind bars with cancer are the former leader of the Belarusian People’s Front (BNF), 67-year-old Ryhor Kastusiov, sentenced to 10 years; former state TV-broadcaster Ksenia Lutskina, sentenced to eight years in prison; and railroad saboteur Ruslan Slutsky, who is serving an 11-year sentence.

Belarus is currently imprisoning over 1,400 political prisoners, subjecting them to torturous conditions and arbitrary punishments. Six individuals have already died behind bars, and many suffer from severe health conditions without receiving medical help. The humanitarian list, compiled by opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s shadow cabinet, includes 250 such prisoners.

On June 13, Tsikhanouskaya said that the humanitarian list includes 16 people with disabilities, 91 with serious illnesses, 65 elderly people, 10 individuals with mental disorders, 23 minors, and at least five families in which both parents have been incarcerated.

Lukashenko reshuffles his administration, government

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko appointed several key high-ranking officials in a major government reshuffle on June 27, according to a report by state-owned news agency Belta.

Dzmitry Krutoy, the former Belarusian ambassador to Russia, was appointed the head of Lukashenko's administration. Natalia Piatkevich, a former assistant and press secretary of Lukashenko, was reinstated as the first deputy head of the administration, a position she worked in between 2004 and 2010. Despite being under sanctions, Piatkevich lived in the United States as the spouse of Belarus’ Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Valiantsin Rybakou.

Lukashenko also dismissed Siarhei Aleinik as foreign minister only 18 months after his appointment. Maksim Ryzhankou, the first deputy head of the presidential administration, who had reportedly been overseeing foreign policy, is to replace Aleinik. Lukashenko, commenting on Ryzhankou’s appointment, said he would demand that the new minister to “shake up the Foreign Ministry to make it work.”

By appointing Ryzhankou as the new foreign minister, Lukashenko appears to be signaling to the West that he “would like to launch some kind of communication,” exiled Belarusian opposition politician and former diplomat Pavel Latushka said.

Lukashenko also replaced his deputy prime minister, the agriculture minister, and the industry minister.

All of the newly appointed officials are under international sanctions.

Belarusian political analysts believe the new appointments are part of Lukashenko’s preparations for the next presidential elections, which have to be held no later than July 20, 2025.

Latushka, a former Belarusian ambassador and culture minister, has suggested that by appointing Krutoy, “an absolutely pro-Russian person,” to the “second most important post in the state,” Lukashenko was sending a signal of loyalty to the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Valer Karbalevich, a political analyst with U.S. government-funded news agency Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, said that Krutoy was put in charge of the Presidential Administration to ensure Lukashenko enjoyed an “elegant victory” in the 2025 elections.

After claiming to have won a sixth consecutive term as president in contested presidential elections in 2020, Lukashenko faced the largest protest rallies in Belarus’ recent history. In response, he brutally cracked down on all forms of dissent, eradicating independent media and the civil sector, and disbanding all but loyal, pro-regime political parties.

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20 Belarusian political analysts, journalists sentenced in absentia to 10-11 years in prison

Minsk Regional Court handed down in absentia prison sentences to 20 exiled Belarusian political analysts and journalists, dubbed “Tsikhanouskaya analysts” after Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the office of the Belarusian Prosecutor General reported on July 1.

The court found the exiled experts and journalists, many of whom work with world-renowned universities and think tanks, guilty of conspiring to overthrow the regime of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and belonging to “extremist groups” – as the regime dubs most opposition organizations.

Alexander Dobrovolsky, an adviser to Tsikhanouskaya, was also charged with leading an “extremist formation” and one of its branches, and was sentenced to 11.5 years of imprisonment and ordered to pay a fine of roughly $74,800.

Other defendants, including the Belarusian Initiative director at the U.K. think tank Chatham House, Ryhor Astapenya, and RFE/RL analyst Yury Drakakhrust, were given prison terms ranging between 10 and 11 years and hefty fines of up to $500,000. The total amount of prison terms handed down exceeded 200 years.

Civil society in Belarus has been subjected to a four-year-long repressive crackdown. Tsikhanouskaya’s press secretary and one of the defendants, Hanna Krasulina, told RFE/RL in January, when the investigation was announced, that there was no particular logic behind the list of people being investigated: “They just put as many people on this list as possible to intimidate as many people as possible,” Krasulina said.

Between 300,000 and 500,000 Belarusians have been forced out of the country of 9.5 million. Lukashenko’s regime is now seeking to intimidate and silence its exiled opponents with in absentia trials and property seizures.

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