EU foreign ministers toughen sanctions on Belarus businesses

UK foreign secretary pushing for sanctions against Belarus oligarch turned down for post of Malta consul.

The Council of the EU's foreign ministers today decided to strengthen its restrictive measures against Belarus in view of the deteriorating human rights, democracy and rule-of-law situation in the country.

It will now impose an arms embargo and an export ban on materials that might be used for internal repression. The Council has also decided to add further names to the list of individuals subject to the EU travel restrictions and assets freeze, and to freeze the assets of three companies linked to the regime.

No names were mentioned, but the decision and the regulation will published in the Official Journal of the European Union on Tuesday, 21 June 2011.

A Belarusian oligarch turned down for the post of consul to Malta by the foreign ministry, is facing EU sanctions on his companies according to

Tycoon Vladimir Peftiev – identified as Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko’s personal bag man – is likely to see three of his companies frozen out of doing business in the EU. The firms are arms maker Beltechexport, the national telecommunications provider Beltelecom and gambling company Sport-Pari – a recently-launched offshoot of the Belarusian state lottery, Superloto.

Vladimir Peftiev is an economic adviser to the Belarusian dictator, who is suspected of using the companies as a vehicles for his political funds – a so called “presidential fund”. Peftiev has previously denied his companies funnel cash to the Belarusian state.

MaltaToday’s attention to Peftiev’s interest in Malta was alerted by a recent newsletter from the Chamber of SMEs (GRTU), which announced that it had held a meeting with Peftiev – described as “a consultant” for the Belarus government and the president of the country’s Olympic committee.

Since then MaltaToday has been informed that his bid for honorary consul for Malta has failed because the government felt he was “not fit for the job”.

The UK government is pressing the EU’s foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg today to impose new sanctions, including a full arms embargo on Belarus in response to the regime’s continuing crackdown on human rights.

William Hague is calling on ministers to ban visas and freeze the assets of close associates of Lukashenko. The UK Independent reports that the sanctions target in particular Peftiev, “the country’s second-richest man”.

Belarus is claimed to be a proxy agent for the sale of weapons to regimes like Iran, North Korea, and even Libya. Beltechexport was formerly managed by Victor Bout, who is today detained by the United States, facing trial on charges that stem from his alleged agreement to arm a terrorist group. Beltechexport produces and overhauls used weapons for resale according to the US department of trade, and then sells them to Iran, Syria, and North Korea. The company is the leading re-exporter of second-hand weaponry and arms vehicles and aircraft.

Human rights abuses

The Council today agreed that the extension of European Investment Bank operations to Belarus should only proceed if and when the EU is able to give a sufficiently positive assessment of the human rights and rule of law situation. "The EU will continue to closely monitor the situation in Belarus... the development of bilateral relations is conditional on progress towards respect by Belarus for the principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights."

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has presented a report with evidence of widespread human-rights violations in Belarus. “The fact-finding mission indicates the seriousness, duration and scale of gross and systematic human rights violations since the events of December 19th… This concerns not only a long list of individual cases of great concern, as ‘political detainees’, but a system of social control, by fear, harassment, torture and blackmail, phone tapping, false evidence and forced confessions.”

The country has been experiencing the worst human-rights crackdown in a generation with the regime arresting and imprisoning scores of political opponents after last December’s disputed presidential elections. Virtually all the presidential candidates who dared to stand against Lukashenko have been imprisoned or put under house arrest alongside dozens of opposition activists and journalists.

An estimated 300,000 people turned out in central Minsk to protest against the election results and most of those who are being tried face charges of “organising a mass riot”. Hundreds more have been handed down brief prison sentences or fines for taking part in the demonstrations.

After a bomb blast on the Minsk metro in April, the repression has worsened with waves of fresh arrests and the closure of some of the few remaining semi-independent newspapers and human-rights groups.

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