BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to impose sanctions on scores of officials and several organizations in Belarus, and prepared a series of economic measures aimed at hitting President Alexander Lukashenko and his allies.
The EU has gradually ratcheted up sanctions since Lukashenko – dubbed the last dictator in Europe – won a sixth term last August in elections it says were fraudulent. The measures have targeted people accused of electoral misconduct and responsibility for the police crackdown that followed.
But the EU has taken a harder approach since Belarus' authorities forced a Ryanair plane to land in Minsk last month, and over the country's alleged use of migrants to pressure neighboring Lithuania, which has provided a safe-haven to Belarusian opposition figures and is one of Lukashenko's most vocal critics.
The ministers imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 78 Belarus officials and froze the assets of 8 "entities," which are usually companies, banks, or associations. It means that a total of 166 people and 15 entities are now under EU restrictive measures.
"This decision was made in view of the escalation of serious human rights violations in Belarus and the violent repression of civil society, democratic opposition and journalists," a statement said.
Seven people and one entity were hit over the "forced and unlawful" landing of the Ryanair plane, which was traveling from Greece to Lithuania when it was ordered to stop in Minsk, where authorities arrested Raman Pratasevich, a dissident journalist who was one of the passengers.
The EU had already banned Belarus airline companies from flying over the bloc's territory or using its airports.
Borrell said the ministers will also prepare a raft of economic sanctions for EU leaders to endorse at a summit on Thursday. "These are going to hurt, going to hurt the economy of Belarus heavily," he said.
The measures are likely to include action against the export of potash – a common fertilizer ingredient – tobacco industry exports and petroleum products, among others.
"We will no longer just sanction individuals. We will now also impose sectoral sanctions — meaning that we will now get to work on the economic areas that are of particular significance for Belarus and for the regime's income," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
"We want to make very, very clear to Lukashenko that there is no going back," Maas said.
Maas said the 27 EU countries stand united on sanctions "We are really very, very determined not to budge, not just today — nothing about this will change in the coming weeks and months," he said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said EU countries had thought only a month ago that it still might be possible to reason with Lukashenko but that "the mood is different now."
Landsbergis accused Minsk of "weaponizing" migration flows. He said around 500 people are sheltering in Lithuania, most from Iraq, and that Belarus border guards brought 30 refugees to the border in recent days. He said Lithuania has limited capacity for them and is building a tent camp.
To kick off Monday's meeting, the ministers held a working breakfast with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate to challenge Lukashenko in last year's election.