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Cyprus Jolts EU, Blocks Belarus Sanctions Over Leniency for Turkey

Αssociated Press

Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides, second right, speaks with Italy s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, left, during a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP)

With protests raging for weeks in Belarus over the rigged re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko, the European Union's delayed attempts at sanctions were blocked by Cyprus, which insisted penalties be imposed on Turkey for drilling off the island's coast for oil and gas.

The EU was drawing up a list of 20 more officials in Belarus to go along with 20 others previously hit with sanctions but exempted Lukashenko, giving him a free hand to continue a crackdown that has allegedly included beating and jailing demonstrators and journalists. 

The EU requires unanimous consent from its 27 members, which makes reaching decisions frequently difficult or impossible because of conflicting interests and Cyprus used its veto to block the Belarus sanctions.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell referred to a “high-voltage political problem that the European Council will have to solve,” the British newspaper The Guardian reported.

Some other countries representatives were reportedly irked by Cyprus' stance but Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has long called for tougher measures after only soft sanctions that didn't work were implemented against Turkey.

In the divided Cypriot capital of Nicosia, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou backed Cyprus as Greece is also demanding sanctions on Turkey for planning to drill in Greek waters, unless an agreement can be reached.

The EU will have a showdown with Turkey on Sept. 24-25 but Germany, home to 2.774 million Turks, has blocked sanctions, saying it would stay neutral whle denying it would.

Sakellaropoulou said of Greece and Cyprus that, “The two countries maintain a common, solid diplomatic front,” during talks with Anastasiades who had said Turkey's drilling is a second invasion, referring to the 1974 occupation of the northern third of the island, and keeping a 35,000-strong army there.

Lukashenko, referred to as “Europe's last dictator,” has been in power 26 years and critics said he fixed the election, blocked rivals from running and now could be rewarded with financial incentives by the EU as an alternative to sanctions, on the grounds he become less repressive.

“It’s not a secret for anyone that we don’t have unanimity because one country has not participated in the consensus,” Borrell told journalists without even referring to Cyprus by name.

He said he hoped to see agreement at the next EU foreign ministers’ meeting on Oct. 12, adding  that, ““I understand perfectly that our credibility is at stake.”

While there is widespread support for sanctions on Belarus, some countries don't want to provoke Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fearful he will unleash on the bloc through Greek islands more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war, strife and economic misery in their homelands.

They wanted to use Turkey as a jumping off point to get to more prosperous countries in the EU before the bloc closed its borders to them, dumping the problem largely on Greece, which is holding more than 100,000 of them.

Cyprus' Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, said: “Our reaction to any kind of violation of our core basic values and principles cannot be a la carte. It needs to be consistent.”

A Cypriot diplomat not named told The Guardian that it was “unfair” to blame Cyprus, which had provided a list Turkish officials and entities for sanctions but hadn't gotten a response yet.

Cyprus says it supports sanctions on Belarus as long as the EU is consistent and puts penalties on Turkey, which doesn't recognize parts of the island's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ.) It wasn't said if Erdogan was on Cyprus' list.

One diplomat who didn't want to be named told the paper that Cyprus is  “effectively shield(ing) the Lukashenko regime from the consequences of its undemocratic and oppressive behavior,” without explaining why the EU wasn't doing the same with Turkey for violating the rights of EU member Cyprus.

EU foreign ministers met Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, leading the call for new elections. The teacher-turned-politician, told journalists she had urged ministers to “be more brave in their decisions”.

“Sanctions are very important in our fight, because sanctions are part of pressure that will force the so-called authorities to start dialogue with us,” she said as well.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for an end to the unanimity rule in EU foreign policy on human rights and sanctions  that has even seen China protected.

But some countries, especially those with authoritarian leaders such as Hungary, still want veto power to protect themselves from penalties for doing what they want under the current rules.