TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto on Monday became the first senior official from a European Union country to visit Belarus since the authoritarian Belarusian regime imposed a harsh crackdown on opposition in 2020.
His trip came as the EU is expected to consider a new package of sanctions against Belarus. The EU has slapped an array of sanctions on the country already, both for the repression that followed mass protests against the 2020 presidential election — widely seen as rigged — and for Belarus’ hosting Russian troops during the war in Ukraine.
Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said that as a result of the sanctions Minsk is experiencing “huge” difficulties with the export of potash fertilizers — a key source of revenue — and oil products.
“And the continuation of the war (in Ukraine) is tightening the economic knot around the neck of Belarus,” Karbalevich said. “The Belarusian authorities are doing their best to ease this pressure.”
Belarus has not deployed troops in Ukraine, but Russian soldiers based there have crossed the border into Ukraine’s north.
After the 2020 election that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new term, massive protests broke out and persisted for weeks, the largest and most prolonged wave of unrest since Lukashenko came to power in 1994.
He unleashed a brutal crackdown on the protesters; more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by police. Among those arrested was human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, one of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize laurates. He is on trial and faces 12 years in prison if convicted.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020 and left the country days after the election, condemned Szijjarto’s vist.
“At a time when a Nobel laureate is being tried, journalists are being tortured, Russian soldiers are being trained before going to fight in Ukraine, such actions are unacceptable,” she said.
In closing remarks at his closed-door trial, Bialiatski said Monday that Lukashenko made “a political decision to crush and destroy the civil society of Belarus,” according to the Viasna human rights center that he founded.
Bialiatski and two other Viasna figures are charged with tax evasion, smuggling and financing activities that undermine public order – charges linked to Viasna paying the legal fees of people it regards as political prisoners.