Czechs recall ambassador to Belarus in solidarity with EU

Prague joins EU response to Minsk’s withdrawal of diplomats from Brussels and Warsaw (a retaliatory move over wider sanctions)

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (left) and his counterpart from Belarus (right), Sergei Martynov, at a 2010 conference on the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative foto: © The Council of the European UnionČeská pozice

Following a move by EU foreign ministers to widen sanctions on Belarus state officials — including by imposing a travel ban — Minsk threatened Tuesday to recall its ambassadors to European Union institutions and Poland, which has led the call for stringent sanctions against its eastern neighbor.

In line with the EU-wide response agreed later on Tuesday, the Czech Republic said it would recall its ambassador to Belarus, Jiří Karas. The Czech Foreign Ministry said in a statement Belarus’ decision to withdraw its ambassadors was regrettable, as it “will lead to the further estrangement of the Republic of Belarus and the European Union.” 

Under Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg’s (TOP 09) leadership, the Czech Republic has consistently been among the EU member states advocating a tougher stance against the regime of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko — who has been described as the “last dicator in Europe.”

Prague is home to the dissident movement Civic Belarus, which has held demonstrations and protests to draw attention to the human rights situation in the country since Lukashenko’s brutal clampdown of a post-election demonstration in Minsk on December 19, 2010 during which hundreds, including opposition presidential candidates, were arrested.

Ales Mikhalevich, among those who stood against Lukashenko in the 2010 elections, was granted asylum in the Czech Republic last March; Minsk responded by issuing an international warrant for his arrest.

Although the Czechs have been among the more vocal of critics of Belarus, it is Poland — home to a large community of Belarus exiles, opposition organizations and media — that has led the call for stringent sanctions against its eastern neighbor. There is also sizable minority of Poles in Belarus, which has seen several of its civic organizations banned by Lukashenko.

Tit for tat

The latest stand-off between the EU and Belarus was triggered by the EU’s foreign ministers decision on Monday to add a further 21 Belarus state officials, mostly from the judiciary, to the 210 already on its blacklist, which entails a travel ban to the EU and a seizure of assets held in the union.

According to the Brussels-based news server euobserver.com, among those who may be placed on the EU’s expanded blacklist next month is Belarus entrepreneur and construction magnet Yury Chizh, a close friend of President Lukashenko. ‘[They] are also invited to return to their capitals for consultations and to communicate to their leaders the firm stance of Belarus towards the unacceptable pressure and sanctions.’

Minsk responded to the widening of sanctions by announcing a reciprocal travel ban on EU officials instrumental in drawing up and imposing the blacklist of Belarus officials, and announcing the recall of its ambassadors from Brussels and Warsaw.

“The head of the EU representation in the Republic of Belarus and the Ambassador of Poland in Belarus are also invited to return to their capitals for consultations and to communicate to their leaders the firm stance of Belarus towards the unacceptable pressure and sanctions,” Belarus Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Svinykh told journalists in Minsk on Tuesday.

The EU’s foreign relations envoy Catherine Ashton, who coordinated the EU member states’ move to withdraw their ambassadors from Minsk, described the bloc’s unanimous decision as an “expression of solidarity and unity.”