TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto on Monday became the first high-ranking official from a European Union country to visit Belarus since the authoritarian Belarusian regime imposed a crackdown on the opposition in 2020.
His trip came as the EU is expected to consider a new package of sanctions against Belarus. The EU has already imposed a number of sanctions on the country, both over the crackdown that followed mass protests against the 2020 presidential election – which is considered rigged – and over Belarus’ hosting of Russian troops during the war in Ukraine.
Belarusian political analyst Valery Karbalevich said that because of the sanctions, Minsk is experiencing “enormous” difficulties in exporting potash fertilizers – a key source of income – and petroleum products.
“And the continuation of the war (in Ukraine) tightens the economic knot around the neck of Belarus,” Karbalevich said. “Belarusian authorities are doing their best to alleviate this pressure.”
Belarus has not deployed troops in Ukraine, but Russian soldiers stationed there have crossed the border into northern Ukraine.
After the 2020 election that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko a new mandate, weeks of mass protests erupted, the largest and longest wave of unrest since Lukashenko came to power in 1994.
He launched a brutal crackdown on protesters; more than 35,000 people were arrested and thousands were beaten by the police. Among those arrested was human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, one of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. 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 Szijjart’s visit.
“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 arguments at the closed-door trial, Biyatski said Monday that Lukashenko had made a “political decision to crush and destroy the civil society of Belarus,” according to the Viasna Human Rights Center he founded.
Bialiatski and two other people from Viasna are accused of tax evasion, smuggling and financing activities that disrupt public order – charges related to paying legal fees to people he considers political prisoners.