More than 150 U.S. and European Union figures will be barred entry into Belarus, says the BelTA state news agency, in response to a January 31 action by the European Union imposing sanctions against 157 Belarusians - including President Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarus announced the retaliatory measures yesterday, soon after EU foreign ministers voted to enlarge their list of sanctioned Belarusians.
The EU sanctions come as a result of controversy surrounding the Dec. 19 presidential elections in Belarus, in which Lukashenko won with nearly 80 percent of the vote. In the run-up to the vote, monitors congratulated the eastern European state for hosting its most democratic elections yet. Then they changed their minds after the incumbent's victory, and now argue that the vote was rigged. European officials further chide Belarus for imprisoning several presidential candidates, whom Belarus argues worked to instigate violence and rioting.
"I do not think that people who took the decision to expand the list really believe that such action can make a difference," said Nikolai Samoseiko, a member of Belarus's legislature. "Those, who think that in this way they can exert pressure on the judicial system, are profoundly mistaken."
"The judiciary," Samoseiko said, "is independent from politics and subject only to law."
Belarusian officials contend that the vote was fair, and that support for Lukashenko was high because people were rejecting "extremists" who opposed him. For example, one candidate, they noted, had publicly said "Lukashenko should be hanged."
Belarusian leaders claim that their country is being targeted by western powers because they have refused to give up their sovereignty to transnational capital and, instead, focus on bettering the living standards of the Belarusian people. Belarus defines itself as "socialist oriented" and "a state for the people." The largest parties in its parliament are the Communist Party and its allied Agrarian Party.
A Dec. 2 interim report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a mission in Minsk, noted that ten presidential candidates had been registered by "inclusive" means, and that state television had obeyed the legal rules that all candidates be given free time on television.
However, European officials began to condemn Belarus on the day of the election, when a full-scale riot broke out in Minsk. Police forcefully dispersed the crowd, and several dozen people were arrested, including, reportedly, a number of the opposition candidates.
While the European officials consider the crowd to be "pro-democracy," Belarusian authorities said that most of the people there were either foreign agents or paid by them, and were looking to instigate a riot. Indeed, videos that surfaced on the internet show the demonstrators trying to break their way into government buildings.
"Kill Lukashenko with a bullet?" said Youtube user Rustam Minsk, referring to one of the chants by protestors. The user was responding to another from outside the country, who criticized the government for arresting the rioters. "You realize that you are defending terrorism, right? If you were imprisoned in Belarus, you would probably call yourself 'innocent.' Don't you think that it's too hypocritical from your side?"
The Belarusian president argues that the candidates arrested were helping to lead a riot, and that they have nothing in common with the popular revolutions going on in other countries such as Egypt. He argues that the protesters are "not an opposition but a fifth column," pointing out that, in other countries, people who lose elections don't immediately call for sanctions.
Some Belarusian officials point out that, despite there being far less repression in Belarus, the protestors have never picked up a mass following, as they did in the Eastern European "color revolutions" or in the more recent Middle Eastern uprisings.
According to Lukashenko, 87 million euros from the pockets of Western European taxpayers was sent, though most of it was siphoned off in transit, leaving only 8.7 million euros to the Belarusian opposition, which, he said, "consists of about 800 people, 400 of them militants."
In many ways, Belarus is surrounded by hostile forces. Western states, Belarus says, are unhappy that it pursues an independent policy in all spheres, and that it will not open up its economy to gangsters and unrestricted control by foreign capital the way that other post-Soviet republics have.
But Russia, traditionally an ally, has also pressed Belarus recently, upset that the republic has been attempting closer cooperation with the west.
Speaking March 18 about the detainees, Lukashenko said, "We wanted to clarify who they are and where the money came from," adding, "unfortunately, there had been Russian money, too."
Frustrated with the U.S./European interference in Belarus, Lukashenko said, "To talk to the West ... ? One cannot talk to them and shouldn't! They are indecent people: they say some things but think different things."
Nonetheless, he emphasized the trade between Belarus and its neighbors, both eastern and western. "Can I ignore that half the trade involves the European Union and America? I cannot. Today we use U.S. dollars and euros even in bilateral payments with Russia." Almost half of Belarus' trade is with the west, the other half with the east.
The country is trying to diversify, however, and has signed agreements with Vietnam, China and Latin American nations.