West tightens Belarus sanctions as Latvia prepares to build border fence

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The US, UK and Canada have tightened sanctions against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, exactly one year after he won re-election in a presidential ballot that he has been accused of rigging.

Also on Monday, Latvia said it was poised to declare a state of emergency on its frontier with Belarus and build a fence there to stem a flow of migrants, which it has described as “hybrid warfare”.

The co-ordinated sanctions by Washington, London and Ottawa are in response to what US president Joe Biden called the Lukashenko regime’s “illegitimate effort to hold on to power at any price”. They focus on sectors such as potash, Belarus’ biggest foreign currency earner, and ban purchases of certain Belarusian state and bank securities.

In Minsk, Lukashenko struck a defiant note. He said the UK could “choke” on its sanctions, and called it a US lapdog. But the president also said he was ready for talks with the west, and that he had asked Russia to delay repayment of $1bn in debt and was seeking a new credit line from the Russian-led Eurasian Bank.

“Don’t make us look as beggars,” he told a news conference. “The point is to ask our governments to work out a joint policy to counter sanctions.”

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who recently toured Washington and London to drum up support, welcomed the latest western sanctions. She said that, while “not a silver bullet, they are designed to push the regime towards dialogue and stop its impunity”.

A US official said that, if conditions did not improve, the US, together with it partners and allies, would “continue to impose costs on the regime” in Minsk. The EU has already imposed sectoral sanctions, although critics have complained about loopholes. 

Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic since 1994 and there is growing unease about his intentions as over the past year he has ramped up anti-western rhetoric, and the repression of internal dissent.

So far, the Baltics are the EU countries that have felt most directly the regime’s counter measures. Lithuania was first to experience the Belarus “weaponisation” of migrants. More than 4,000 migrants — mostly from Iraq — have crossed into Lithuania in recent months.

But as Vilnius got tougher on its border, and Iraq suspended flights to Minsk under pressure from the EU, Belarus has begun diverting asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria and African countries towards Latvia and Poland, the two other EU and Nato states on its border.

In Latvia, interior minister Marija Golubeva said the country was poised to declare a state of emergency on its frontier, and was immediately backed by prime minister Krisjanis Karins ahead of a formal decision on Tuesday.

Latvia had no migrants crossing the border from Belarus in June, and only a few at the turn of this month. But that has suddenly jumped with 39 reported on Saturday, 35 on Sunday, and 86 on Monday.

Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times he is worried about a potential “incident” between Nato forces and troops from Russian and Belarus, which are taking part in a joint military exercise next month, due to the heightened border tensions.

From Minsk, and apparently playing up to those fears, Lukashenko said that a Russian military base could soon be established in Belarus. “They are right to be afraid of Lukashenko and Putin,” he said.

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