(CN) — Faced with an array of foreign policy troubles at their borders, European Union leaders on Friday turned to a now-familiar – but potentially ineffective – weapon of choice: sanctions.
During a two-day summit of EU leaders in Brussels, the EU said it is imposing targeted sanctions on Belarus for its brutal crackdown on protests following allegedly rigged presidential elections in August. The bloc also threatened Turkey with sanctions unless it backs away from natural gas exploration in waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus.
The EU said it is targeting 40 individuals within the Belarusian regime, a move that comes nearly two months after longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was reelected in a landslide victory widely viewed as fixed.
Taking so long to impose sanctions on Belarus has been an embarrassment for the EU. The delay was caused by Cyprus, an EU member state that insisted the bloc must take a tougher stance against Turkey before it would support sanctions against Belarus. Under its treaties, the EU requires unanimity among its member states on major policy decisions, a requirement that often leaves the EU unable to respond to both internal and international crises quickly.
However, the EU left Lukashenko off the list of those facing sanctions. EU officials said they chose to not punish Lukashenko to entice him to enter negotiations on holding new elections. The EU does not recognize his victory as legitimate and wants Belarus to hold new elections with international observers present.
It is also calling for the release of political prisoners, an end to violence and repression, respect for media freedom and civil society and the start of “an inclusive national dialogue.” In the crackdown, Belarus has closed media outlets, shut down the internet and arrested opposition figures.
EU leaders also agreed to funnel funds for “a comprehensive plan of economic support for democratic Belarus.” The EU has said it wants to support pro-democracy media outlets and organizations in Belarus. Belarus and Russia are accusing the West of seeking to interfere in Belarus and orchestrate a regime change.
On Friday, a defiant Belarus condemned the sanctions, rejected calls to redo the elections and said the EU’s actions will alienate Belarus from the EU.
For several years prior to the August election, Belarus was seeking to improve relations with the United States and the EU. Lukashenko’s overtures to Western powers were seen as a rebuff to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective to deepen Belarus’s integration with Russia.
“The EU again does not want to offer its partner anything but sanctions,” the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, according to the Belarusian Telegraph Agency, a state-run news agency.
It said the EU was not interested in working with Belarus to improve relations and that EU leaders falsely believed that what is occurring in Belarus is a “fight of good against evil.”
“Pro-democratic totalitarianism is even more assertive than the communist one,” the ministry said. “Not only different opinions, details and nuances, but even obvious facts are rejected a priori if they are not in sync with the ‘right ideology.’”
The European Council, an EU institution made up of the bloc’s national leaders, issued sanctions against Yuri Karaev, the interior minister, Lidia Yermoshina, the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, and numerous other interior ministry officials, security chiefs and election officials.
As punishment, all 40 blacklisted individuals are barred from traveling to the EU and their financial assets were ordered frozen. The accusations included allegations of arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment of peaceful demonstrators, torture, falsifying election results, barring opposition candidates from running in the election and restricting poll observers.
Sanctions – such as trade blockades, travel and financial restrictions against top officials – have become a favorite form of punishment since the 1990s to force bad actors to change policy, but there is a lot of skepticism about how effective sanctions are.
At the summit, the EU also warned Turkey that it will take punitive measures against Ankara unless it backs away from exploring for natural gas in the Mediterranean waters of Cyprus and Greece. The EU called on Turkey to engage in negotiations to settle the dispute. Turkey has said it is ready for talks over maritime boundaries.
“It is very much our wish to have a stronger voice on the international stage,” European Council President Charles Michel said at a news conference. “We are prepared to engage in a more positive agenda with Turkey, provided that Turkey also engages in a more positive direction with us, and puts an end to these unilateral actions, which go against international law.”
Besides its gas exploration, the EU is growing uneasy with Turkey, a NATO ally, because of its military involvement in Syria, Libya and against Kurds in Iraq. This week, Turkey angered EU leaders again by backing Azerbaijan’s military assault against Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Fighting there has killed more than 100 people, including civilians.
But handling Turkey is a delicate matter for the EU because it is a NATO ally, a regional power, a potential EU member state and a bridge for scores of refugees and immigrants seeking to enter Europe. Under a controversial agreement, the EU pays Turkey billions of dollars to stop refugees and immigrants fleeing war, famine, persecution and environmental devastation from entering the EU. Under the deal, Turkey is paid to look after about 3 million refugees, most of them Syrians.
In a statement, the European Council said it wanted to cooperate with Turkey on creating a “mutually beneficial relationship” in the eastern Mediterranean and enter into a “dialogue in good faith.” But it said it was “an absolute requirement” that Turkey not violate the territorial sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus and respect international law.
“The European Council reiterates its full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus, whose sovereignty and sovereign rights must be respected,” the statement said.
The council also called on Turkey to renew negotiations at the United Nations over settling the longstanding territorial dispute on the island of Cyprus.
Cyprus was split between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots following a 1974 Greek-backed coup. A northeastern chunk of the island, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is controlled by Turkey. Turkey does not recognize Cyprus but no country other than Turkey recognizes Northern Cyprus.
In a carrot-and-stick approach, the EU said it was ready to “launch a positive EU-Turkey agenda” that could include expanding trade ties and potentially allowing Turks to travel more freely in the EU.
Under the 2016 deal on refugees, the EU and Turkey agreed to look at expanding trade ties and easing visa requirements for Turks traveling to the EU. Turkey has complained that the EU has failed to uphold those aspects of the deal.
Turkey responded coolly to the EU’s demands.
“The fact that within the decisions there is no mention of Turkish Cypriots or a fair distribution of the hydrocarbon resources between the two sides shows that the EU’s mentality to overlook the Turkish Cypriots resumes,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said, according to the Daily Sabah newspaper, a pro-government Turkish newspaper.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry, though, welcomed entering talks with Greece and resolving the dispute in Cyprus. But it also rejected the EU’s contention it was acting illegally by exploring for natural gas on what it says is its continental shelf in the Mediterranean. Turkey has the longest coastline on the Mediterranean but its maritime boundaries are restricted by Greek islands off its coast.
Citing an anonymous official, the newspaper said sanctions against Turkey “would not deter Turkey” and “could imperil dialogue” between Turkey and Greece.
European leaders cast the summit as a show of unity from EU nations.
“All in all, it was an extensive, sometimes difficult discussion today, but we have pulled ourselves together and can point to results,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. “And I consider the fact that the sanctions against Belarus on the one hand and the approach to Turkey on the other have been agreed is a great step forward.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.