Activists such as ex-presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov call for broader sanctions from Brussels targeting 'Europe's last dictator'.
The EU is playing a key role in propping up the rule of Alexander Lukashenko, widely seen as "Europe's last dictator", according to one of the country's leading opposition figures who spent a year in jail after challenging the leader for the presidency.
A policy paper has been delivered to all 28 EU foreign ministries this week, along with a letter calling on ministers to back a broadening of sanctions against Belarusian individuals and companies. It is signed by a number of NGOs and activists, including Andrei Sannikov, who stood for the presidency in 2010, in elections widely seen as rigged.
"Europe is again pursuing a policy of engagement," Sannikov said. "But the policy of engagement with dictators simply doesn't work."
Sannikov was beaten by police and arrested at a rally that turned violent following the 2010 vote, and later sentenced to five years in prison in May 2011, for organising mass unrest. He was released about a year later, following international pressure. Sannikov claimed that sanctions are the only way to force the Belarusian regime to release its remaining political prisoners, and make much-needed concessions to civil society – Belarus is the only country in Europe to retain the death penalty, with Lukashenko running the economy and political system on neo-Soviet lines.
EU sanctions are already in place against some individuals and firms in Belarus, and are due for routine annual renewal at the end of the month. Sannikov and others claim they are ineffective, as they do not cover the main sources of income for Lukashenko and his regime.
The policy paper outlines a number of businessmen identified as Lukashenko's "bagmen" but who are not currently covered by the punitive sanctions. The paper identified Belarusian oligarchs whose businesses, it said, would be impossible without the "permission and deep involvement" of the regime. One, Yuri Chizh, is already present on the sanctions list, along with most of his companies, although three of his profitable firms were left off last year after lobbying from Latvia.
The activists demand that these companies, as well as firms belonging to businessmen Nikolai Vorobei and Alexander Shakutin, are also included on the sanctions list.
Sannikov said he personally handed the letter to the minister for Europe, David Lidington, earlier this week, and asked him to pass it on to the foreign secretary, William Hague.
In response to the claims, the Foreign Office said: "We continue to be very clear with the Belarusian government in public and in private. All EU member states agree that there can be no change in the EU's position, including sanctions, until we see the immediate release and rehabilitation of the [seven] remaining political prisoners. Absent any positive change in Belarus, sanctions will be rolled over in October.
"We regularly discuss the situation in Belarus with our EU partners, and have done so in recent weeks. The UK, along with all EU [members states], remains concerned about the situation in Belarus, the lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law."
Recent changes in the rules governing sanctions mean that in order for an individual or company to be included on the list, the EU merely has to be satisfied that it either benefits from, or supports, the regime.
"It is very difficult to prove that these companies give a percentage of their profits to the regime, but it is much easier to show that they are benefiting from it, because they clearly all get very beneficial agreements," said an international human rights lawyer who consulted on the paper.
The policy paper also demands that sanctions are extended to cover state-controlled oil and potash export companies.
In 2012, overall exports from Belarus to the EU totalled €12.9bn (£10.9bn), including transit fees, according to the report's authors. The real figures are often disguised amid the huge revenues that Belarus receives from both transit and re-export fees. Another loophole involves the re-registration of several Belarusian companies in Latvia, with thinly veiled attempts to hide their real owners to avoid sanctions.
"Sanctions exist on paper, and the EU thinks it is putting pressure on Belarus, but in reality they are not working any more," said Yuri Dzhibladze, one of the co-ordinators of the policy paper.
Sannikov put it more bluntly: "It is the EU that is propping up Lukashenko's repressive apparatus."
According to the authors, Lukashenko will be vulnerable to financial pressure ahead of the 2015 presidential election, as he tries to maintain salaries and pensions at artificially high levels. Financial analysts claim that the moderate well-being of most Belarusians has only been possible via huge subsidies from the Kremlin, which dried up when Moscow became irritated with Lukashenko's unwillingness to sell it key infrastructure.
"He does not care about resolutions," said Dzhibladze, pointing to dozens of resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council, the EU and other international bodies calling on Belarus to release political prisoners and improve rule of law. "We believe that targeted and smart sanctions are the only way to make Lukashenko act on his international commitments."
The activists' problem is that in order for sanctions to take effect, all 28 EU members states have to agree, and the bloc has faced particular obstruction from Latvia and Slovenia over the inclusion of Belarusian oligarchs on the sanctions list. Any inclkusion would lose the countries significant revenue streams.
"Unfortunately, business interests often triumph over values," said Dzhibladze.
Shaun Walker, The Guardian