EU puts pressure on Belarus - but is it enough?

Alexander Lukashenko

European Union foreign ministers have imposed a visa ban on the newly re-elected president of Belarus - Alexander Lukashenko and 30 of his top officials. The move, strongly supported by the Czech Republic and Poland, is aimed at pressing home the 25-nation bloc's denunciation of his re-election last month. Belarus dismissed the ban as "short-sighted". Mr Lukashenko is often referred to as Europe's last dictator.

"No. There hasn't been that much pressure exerted. I don't think that the problem with Belarus is the EU; the problem with Belarus is Belarus. The responsibility for improving things there has to be put on the plate of the Belarusians themselves. The international actors can't force Belarus to do this or that. The exception to this would be Russia. Belarus is basically a client state of Russia and the whole economy is completely dependent on Russia. If Russia wants to help the Belarusian people to realise their rights and even allow them to enjoy their rights to the extent that Russian citizens do, it could do so in a couple of days by squeezing the Belarusian government with respect to trade arrangements and energy."

In the last few days, Russia has announced that its subsidies for gas supplies to Belarus will be cut from next year. It's also about the control of pipelines. But do you read this, in this current political situation, as a move by Russia to line up with the international community's concerns about Belarus?

"I'm not sure but I do think that the important thing would be to encourage the Russian civil society and Russian government to play a very positive role with respect to Belarus and this could be something very, very good. They have the leverage. The EU doesn't have so much leverage."

However, opposition leader Alexander Milinkievich is appealing for support within Europe. Can we assume that the sort of subtext of this is a wish that the European Union appealed to Russia, to use its influence positively?

"It may be so. There is the question of travel. There is an interest in helping to bring pressure on the Belarusian authorities to release a number of detainees that are still being held there. There are many, many detainees. There is a Canadian journalist, Frederick Lavoie, who was unfairly sentenced to 15 days and this is a very important case because this person is apparently being mistreated."

From those few dozen protesters who have been released, we have heard of severe beatings. What do we know about the numbers of those who are still being held?

"I can't give you any numbers where there is so little transparency. The fact that we don't know is one of the problems. It's probably hundreds of people though."

Would you give any prognosis for the future in Belarus at this point or is it still very opaque?

"I don't think that we really know what will happen but what is important is that we have control over certain things that do happen and we have to find ways to help them document, advocate, and do what they have to do to sustain some kind of a process of accountability. It's very difficult now because the human rights community is on the defensive so much. They are - and have to be - worried about themselves. We have to find creative ways to do this. We are dealing with a situation which is like Soviet times...the worst part of the Soviet times."

But what does this mean in practice? What creative ways are there? Is this moral support? Is it money?

"It's all those things and it's a question of how to deal with information, how to help organisations that aren't legally registered, how to help people travel when they don't easily find the possibilities, and how to preserve documents."