BERLIN—European Union foreign ministers agreed to impose sanctions on senior Belarusian officials in response to what the EU called violent repression against peaceful protesters and opposition figures by the country’s autocratic regime.
The EU in coming days will draft a list of roughly 20 officials to face sanctions and the roster will be extended if the government in Minsk doesn’t cease its human-rights violations, EU foreign ministers said after a meeting in Berlin on Friday.
Belarus, a former Soviet state and a close Russian ally, has been governed by autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko for 26 years. Mr. Lukashenko has been facing unprecedented mass protests since he was elected to a sixth term on Aug. 9 following an election that has been dismissed as fraudulent by the EU and others.
Since the election, thousands of protesters have been detained and injured in a crackdown by heavily armed security forces. Some protesters were killed and hundreds said they had been tortured by security forces, according to human-rights activists, who say they have recorded the testimonies of more than 500 torture victims.
The EU condemns the violent oppression of Belarusian people, said Josep Borrell, the chief EU diplomat, who led the meeting of foreign ministers.
“There was a political agreement to designate individuals responsible for the fraudulent election and the subsequent crackdown,” Mr. Borell said. “This designating shall include individuals at the highest political level.”
Mr. Borrell refused to say whether Mr. Lukashenko himself would be sanctioned. Other officials said that would be unlikely.
Russia, Belarus’s main trading partner and closest ally, criticized the EU’s sanctions decision Friday.
“We have a negative attitude towards sanctions in general, with the exception of the U.N. Security Council,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin said Russia had assembled a law-enforcement team to help shore up his Belarusian counterpart. Mr. Putin said the special unit had been requested by Mr. Lukashenko, who has blamed the unrest in his country on foreign provocateurs.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that she had attempted to set up a phone call with Mr. Lukashenko but he refused. The chancellor said she had spoken to Mr. Putin about the situation in Belarus and hoped no Russian forces would be deployed there.
“We can only hope that the sovereignty of Belarus will be respected and its people will be allowed to choose their path,” Ms. Merkel said.
Both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Borrell called for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Belarus is a member, to be allowed access and a mediation role in Belarus.
EU diplomat Josep Borell said the bloc would sanction high-level Belarusian officials, but declined to say if President Lukashenko would be targeted.
Photo: Kay Nietfeld/Zuma Press
Mr. Lukashenko said he would retaliate against any sanctions from Europe through countermeasures including restricting the transit of trade through Belarus and redirecting commerce. He said that Poles and Lithuanians, who are in the EU, would have to fly either through the Baltic or the Black Sea to trade with Russia.
“I’ve instructed the government to make a proposal to reorient all trade flows from Lithuanian ports to others,” Mr. Lukashenko said during a visit to a dairy factory on Friday, according to the Belta state news agency. “We’ll see how they will live with that. We’ll show them what sanctions are,” he said.
Any such move is unlikely to have a significant impact on the EU, which constitutes the world’s largest single market and trade bloc.
Mr. Lukashenko said that Belarus had already endured EU sanctions, in reference to the period between 2004 and 2016 when some companies and nearly 200 people, including Belarusian officials, were designated by the EU. The bloc then lifted most sanctions in the hope that Mr. Lukashenko would loosen his grip on the country’s society and democratic institutions.
“We survived [then],” Mr. Lukashenko said. “We will survive now.”
Andrei Sannikov, a former Belarus opposition leader who was forced into exile, said the lifting of the sanctions was a naive mistake that can now only be rectified if both the EU and the U.S. put pressure on Mr. Putin to refrain from propping up Mr. Lukashenko.
“It’s a shame for the EU not to have sanctions already, because people have been tortured in prisons,” said Mr. Sannikov, who obtained asylum in the U.K. in 2012 after he was illegally imprisoned and tortured in Belarus.
“We don’t need discussions about some insignificant sanctions,” Mr. Sannikov said. “My message to the West is: Stop being polite.”
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