Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have blacklisted embattled Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and 29 other high-ranking officials for alleged election fraud and a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
The Baltic EU members announced their sanctions on Monday in a coordinated effort to support the protests in Belarus, which are entering a fourth week since the country’s disputed presidential election on August 9.
“We are sending the message that we need to do more than just issue statements, we must also take concrete action,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told the AFP news agency.
Lithuania has been hosting opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who fled there after the election her supporters say she won.
Tikhanovskaya will speak to the UN Security Council on Friday at Estonia’s invitation, her spokesman said.
The European Union has been working on its own list of individuals in Belarus to target with similar sanctions, but Western countries have mostly been cautious, wary of provoking an intervention from Russia.
Reacting to the three Baltic countries’ move, the Belarusian foreign ministry called the sanctions a hasty step and it would respond in an equivalent fashion, according to the RIA news agency.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko on Monday discussed plans for a referendum on constitutional reforms, acknowledging the country’s “somewhat authoritarian system”.
His proposals focused on court reforms and rejected calls by the opposition to go back to the country’s 1994 constitution that was later modified to give the president more powers.
Lukashenko has sought to downplay the protest movement and depict himself as maintaining control and order.
But he has appeared increasingly isolated and paranoid, booed by the blue-collar workers he viewed as his natural supporters and taken to wearing a bullet-proof vest to helicopter into his official residence.
Meeting the chairman of the Supreme Court, Lukashenko said experts were discussing changes, including more independent courts, while he said this was not needed.
“I’m ready to argue with anyone that the most independent court is in Belarus. No one should laugh.”
He said, however, the system needed to work “without being tied to a personality, including Lukashenko”.
He said members of the public would be able to “give their opinion: what they like, what they don’t,” while insisting that “those who yell about being for changes” were a minority.
Lukashenko, elected democratically in 1994, held a referendum on changes including constitutional reforms in 1996.
These included giving the president greater powers on appointing judges, including the chair of the Constitutional Court.
A controversial constitutional referendum was held in 2004 allowing the president to serve three terms instead of two as before.
Lukashenko said going back to the 1994 constitution as the opposition wants would not move the country forward.