Washington hits Belarus with sanctions as Minsk retaliates against EU measures

(Reuters) – The United States imposed sanctions on eight Belarusian officials on Friday, accusing them of involvement in rigging President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election victory in August or the violent crackdown on protests that followed.

The move came after the European Union announced sanctions on 40 people, including the interior minister and the head of the election commission, achieving a breakthrough on the issue at summit talks in the early hours of Friday morning.

Lukashenko was spared, in line with the EU’s policy of punishing powerbrokers as a last resort. He denies electoral fraud and says the protests are backed from abroad.

Lukashenko’s government announced retaliatory sanctions against unidentified officials, recalled its ambassadors to Poland and Lithuania for consultations and nudged both countries to reduce the size of their embassy staff in Minsk.

Lukashenko is grappling to contain nearly two months of street protests that pose the biggest challenge to his 26-year rule. More than 13,000 people have been arrested, and major opposition figures jailed or exiled.

“The United States and our international partners stand united in imposing costs on those who have undermined Belarusian democracy for years,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

The U.S. sanctions also targeted Belarusian Interior Minister Yuri Karaev and his deputy. Those under sanctions are subject to asset freezes and a ban against Americans doing business with them.

Washington had originally been expected to impose sanctions in concert with Britain and Canada, which went ahead on Tuesday with travel bans and asset freezes on Lukashenko, his son Viktor and other senior officials.

Washington has had sanctions on Lukashenko since 2006 but the president was spared in the latest round of measures.

LUKASHENKO SPEAKS TO PUTIN

The crisis has pushed Belarus back towards traditional ally Russia, which has propped up Lukashenko’s government with loans and the offer of military support. Moscow sees its ex-Soviet neighbor as a strategic buffer against the EU and NATO.

Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Friday, expressing confidence that “the problems that have arisen will soon be resolved”, the Kremlin said.

Lukashenko’s government announced it had drawn up a list of people who were banned from travelling to Belarus in retaliation for the EU sanctions. It did not name the officials or the countries they were from.

“…we are imposing visa sanctions against the most biased representatives of European institutions, including the European Parliament and the states – EU members,” foreign ministry spokesman Anatoly Glaz was quoted by the official Belta news agency as saying.

“The list is symmetrical in many ways. We have decided not to make it public for now.”

Russia’s foreign ministry said the Belarusian sanctions would apply in Russia as well.

Lukashenko’s government also asked the Polish and Lithuanian embassies to reduce their staff. Both countries refused.

“We are not going to summon our ambassadors for consultations, and we will definitely not do anything to reduce personnel,” Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters.

“We are not interested in reducing our communications channel,” he said. “If the advice becomes a request, then we will take appropriate measures.”

The Belarusian authorities have detained journalists or stripped them of their accreditation as part of the crackdown on the unrest that followed the Aug. 9 election.

On Friday, the foreign ministry announced it was stripping journalists working for foreign media organizations of their accreditation, and asked them to reapply for their permits.

“I would like to make it clear that it is in no way some attempt to cleanse the news reporting field,” Glaz was quoted by Belta as saying.

The EU sanctions had been held up by Cyprus due to an unrelated dispute with Turkey. The delay dented the credibility of the EU’s foreign policy, diplomats said.

“That we could now agree to those sanctions is an important signal because it strengthens the hand of those who are protesting for freedom of opinion in Belarus,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists.

Merkel will meet on Tuesday with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s main electoral opponent who fled into exile after the vote in the ex-Soviet republic, fearing for her family’s safety.

French President Emmanuel Macron met Tsikhanouskaya on Tuesday, pledging European support for the Belarusian people.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Daphne Psaledakis and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Andrius Sytas in Vilnius, Vladimir Soldatkin, Alexander Marrow and Polina Ivanova in Moscow, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw, Thomas Escritt in Berlin; writing by Matthias Williams; editing by Mark Potter)

U.S. expects to identify Belarus sanctions targets in a few days

By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States signaled on Friday that it will soon punish individual Belarusians with sanctions for election fraud and a brutal crackdown on protests as Washington urged Russia to tell Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to step down.

Lukashenko denies rigging the country’s Aug. 9 election, which official results said he won by a landslide. He also has refused to talk to the opposition, accusing them of trying to wreck the former Soviet republic squeezed between NATO and Russia.

Speaking to reporters during a conference call, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said Washington is coordinating sanctions with the European Union but made clear neither would wait for the other to impose penalties.

“We are looking at targeted sanctions aimed at the individuals who are most responsible for … the violence as well as the theft of the election,” Biegun said, adding wider sanctions might be considered later but Washington was loath to do anything that would hurt the broader population.

A senior U.S. State Department official told Reuters on Sept. 1 Washington was weighing sanctions on seven Belarusians.

Biegun said Lukashenko, who has been in power for 26 years and is to meet Russian President Vladimir PutinĀ on Monday, is increasingly reliant on Moscow to maintain his rule, saying this could turn Belarusian public opinion against Russia.

“It risks turning the Belarusian people, who have no grievance with Russia, against Moscow,” he said, adding that he hoped the Kremlin would voice concern about the violence against protesters in Belarus and the abductions of opposition figures.

“A free and fair election will allow Belarusian people to select who will be the next president of Belarus,” he said. “Ultimately we hope the message from Moscow to Minsk is that the ruler needs to give way to the will of his people.”

(Reporting By Arshad Mohammed and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

U.S. troops to start extended exercises in Lithuania amid tensions over Belarus

By Andrius Sytas

VILNIUS (Reuters) – U.S. troops and tanks will arrive in Lithuania on Friday for a two-month deployment near the Belarus border, but the government said the move was not a message to its Russian-backed neighbor, where protests continue over a disputed election.

In an announcement on Wednesday evening, NATO member Lithuania said U.S. troops will be moved from Poland for pre-planned military exercises. These are “defensive in nature and not directed against any neighbor, including Belarus,” it added.

However, the troops are arriving earlier and staying longer than the government had indicated before the outbreak of protests in Belarus over the Aug. 9 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko, a key ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, to power.

Lukashenko has denied accusations by the Belarus opposition and Western countries that the vote was rigged and has resisted protesters’ demands to step down. He has accused NATO of a military buildup near Belarus’ borders, something the alliance denied, and has said he will ask for Russian military help if needed.

The deployment in Lithuania, which will begin on Friday and will last until November, includes 500 American troops and 40 vehicles, such as Abrams tanks and Bradley armored troop carriers, a Lithuanian army spokesman said.

On July 29, Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told BNS wire the United States would send a battalion-sized troop contingent – between 300 to 1,000 soldiers – in September, for two weeks’ training, beginning in the middle of the month.

He repeated that information on Aug. 4 in an interview with public radio LRT.

“Deployment was aligned with training schedule and training area availability,” defense minister spokeswoman Vita Ramanauskaite told Reuters.

In addition to the U.S. deployment, up to 1,000 troops and military planes from France, Italy, Germany, Poland and others will take part in an annual exercise on Sept. 14-25, the Lithuanian army spokesman said.

The ministry did not state any plans for those troops to stay beyond Sept. 25.

Karoblis said earlier this month that there was a real danger Russia would send forces to Belarus.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Simon Johnson, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry)

Belarus jails two opposition leaders; teachers head rally of thousands

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) – Belarus jailed two opposition leaders for 10 days on Tuesday as the government pursued a crackdown on the few figures still at large, while schoolteachers led a new protest of thousands against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Despite most major opposition figures being in jail or exile, Lukashenko has so far failed to put down protests against his 26-year-old rule, more than two weeks after an election his opponents say was rigged.

Olga Kovalkova and Siarhei Dyleuski were brought to separate courts where they were each jailed for 10 days. Kovalkova is the main representative still in Belarus of opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and Dyleuski has led strikes at Minsk’s flagship tractor factory.

Both are senior figures in an opposition Coordination Council, set up last week with the self-described aim of negotiating with the authorities. They were arrested on Monday.

Lukashenko has accused the new council of attempting to seize power, and prosecutors have launched a criminal case.

In the latest protest, thousands gathered on Tuesday at the ministry of education to demonstrate against a threat by Lukashenko to fire any schoolteachers who do not support his government. Rallies have typically attracted thousands during the week, swelling to tens of thousands on weekends.

“I have come so that teachers are not afraid, so that their voice can be heard, so that they can work even if they have a different view from the authorities,” said a literature teacher who gave her name as Svetlana.

Lukashenko has denied election cheating. He has called the protesters “rats” and says they are funded from abroad.

His posturing has grown steadily more confrontational: in recent days he has been pictured on state television with a Kalashnikov rifle and tactical vest. Yet so far, a long-standing threat of a decisive police operation to clear the streets has yet to materialize.

Another opposition council member, Pavel Latushko, a former culture minister and head of the main state drama theater, was questioned by investigators on Tuesday but not arrested. He emerged saying he would go back to work and the council’s activities were not illegal.

The council includes dozens of figures representing broad swathes of society. Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich has been summoned for questioning on Wednesday.

“The intimidation will not work. We will not relent,” candidate Tsikhanouskaya said in a video link with the European Parliament. “We demand all political prisoners freed. We demand to stop the violence and intimidation by the authorities.”

OPPOSITION

Tsikhanouskaya, 37, fled to Lithuania after the election her supporters say she won. A political novice, she emerged as the consensus opposition candidate after better-known figures were barred from standing, including her jailed activist husband.

Belarus is the closest ally to Russia of all former Soviet republics, and Lukashenko’s fate is widely seen as in the hands of the Kremlin, which must decide whether to stick with him as his authority has ebbed.

There are signs Moscow still backs him. Russia has sent journalists to staff Belarus state TV after workers quit in protest against what they described as orders to broadcast propaganda. Nevertheless, Lukashenko is seen in Moscow as a truculent and erratic ally, with a strained personal relationship with President Vladimir Putin.

The West has had to balance its sympathy for a nascent Belarusian pro-democracy movement with its concern that strong support would trigger a Russian-backed crackdown.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun was due in Moscow for talks on Tuesday after meeting Tsikhanouskaya on Monday in Lithuania.

The crisis also threatens to hurt the finances of a country with only limited foreign currency reserves. The Belarus rouble fell to a new low against the euro, and there have been queues at exchange points as Belarusians try to buy hard currency.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)