BRUSSELS – The United States, European Union, Britain and Canada slapped simultaneous sanctions Thursday on dozens of officials, organizations and companies in Belarus, with the EU taking aim at those accused of participating in a “hybrid attack” on the bloc using migrants.
The three countries and the 27-nation EU have targeted Belarus since President Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term last year in an election that the West and other observers say was fraudulent, and over the security crackdown on peaceful protestors that followed.
The U.S. State Department said the U.S. Treasury has “identified three aircraft as blocked property and designated 32 individuals and entities, including Belarusian state-owned enterprises, government officials, and other persons, who support the regime and facilitate its repression.”
The EU, meanwhile, imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 17 more people, including senior border guard and military officials, government representatives and judges.
The measures also hit air carriers — including state carrier Belavia — and travel groups accused by the EU of helping to bring migrants to Belarus with the aim of helping them cross into the 27-country bloc, chiefly through Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Britain said it had imposed sanctions “on eight Belarusian individuals responsible for repression and human rights violations.” It also froze the assets of OJSC Belaruskali, one of the world’s largest producers of potash fertilizer, which is a major source of revenue for the Belarus government.
The State Department said that “today’s actions demonstrate our unwavering determination to act in the face of a brutal regime that increasingly represses Belarusians, undermines the peace and security of Europe, and continues to abuse people seeking only to live in freedom.”
At least 8,000 migrants, many of them Iraqis, have entered the EU without authorization this year from Belarus. Lithuania and Poland declared a state of emergency at their borders to stop people crossing. Several people died, trapped in the Poland-Belarus border zone in sub-zero temperatures.
With that in mind, the EU targeted Belavia. “Migrants wishing to cross the Union’s external border have been flying to Minsk on board flights operated by Belavia from a number of Middle Eastern countries, in particular Lebanon, UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Turkey,” the sanctions text said.
Cham Wing Airlines, which operates flights from Syria to Belarus, is also in the EU’s sights. It stands accused of ramping up flights from Damascus to Minsk over the summer and setting up new offices in the Belarus capital to better organize the shuttles.
Also on the list is state tourism company Tsentrkurort, which the EU claims helped at least 51 Iraqis obtain visas to Belarus and organized bus transport for them to the borders.
The Hotel Minsk company and Hotel Planeta, which are linked to the Belarus President Property Management Directorate, are accused of lodging migrants aiming to reach the border.
The EU also took aim at VIP Grub, a passport and visa service based in Istanbul, Turkey. The sanctions list says the company “organizes trips to Belarus with the explicit intention of facilitating migration to the EU. VIP Grub actively advertises migration to the EU.”
Belarus' Foreign Ministry charged Thursday that the new sanctions aim to “economically stifle Belarus, make the life of Belarusians as hard as possible” and to destroy Belarus “as a sovereign, economically successful state.”
The ministry rejected allegations that the Belarusian government orchestrated the migrant crisis and blamed the EU for undermining “stability and security in our region.” In a statement, it called the EU “the initiator of the sanctions spiral and aggression" and promised “harsh, asymmetrical” measures in response.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would not tolerate “the orchestrated and politically motivated instrumentalisation of human beings by the Lukashenko regime.”
“This cynical strategy of exploiting vulnerable people is an abhorrent attempt to deflect attention from the regime’s continued disregard for international law, fundamental freedoms and human rights in Belarus,” Borrell said in a statement.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus' opposition leader in exile, echoed his sentiment.
“The regime artificially created a crisis on the Belarusian-Polish border, cynically using migrants, living people, as a ram," Tsikhanouskaya said. “But instead of getting back his legitimacy and attention, Lukashenko achieved the opposite — the EU didn't give in to the pressure and imposed new sanctions.”
Jill Lawless in London and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.