EU Belarus sanctions in doubt as Cyprus demands action against Turkey


Cyprus is threatening to block European Union sanctions on Belarus because the bloc has declined to levy similar measures against Turkey over a long-simmering dispute about maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean.

The collision between two unrelated foreign policy crises on the EU’s doorstep – the standoff between Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko and the people, and rising tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over Turkish drilling – has dismayed EU diplomats.

Now the veto threat from one of the club’s smallest member states threatens to derail EU plans to sanction 40 Belarusian officials accused of falsifying last month’s election results or orchestrating the brutal crackdown on protesters that followed.

EU foreign ministers are due to meet on Monday, when it had been hoped they would sign off a decision to impose asset freezes and travel bans on 40 people, doubling the number of blacklisted officials on an earlier list. The legal agreement was seen as a mere formality following last month’s political decision by EU ministers to impose sanctions.

Two diplomatic sources confirmed to the Guardian that Cyprus was blocking EU action on Belarus, because it wants EU sanctions imposed on Turkey over its drilling activity in the Mediterranean. “It is serious,” said one EU diplomat. “They have basically taken the Belarus sanctions hostage.”

At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday, several diplomats took the floor to warn Cyprus against turning Belarusian sanctions into “a transactional issue”. A second EU source said Cyprus was alone, adding: “Everyone is pissed [off], everyone is annoyed. I’m sure this could have consequences [for Cyprus].”

Any failure or delay to agree on promised Belarus sanctions would damage EU credibility after weeks of lofty declarations of solidarity. The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Wednesday that the EU had to take “a clear and swift position” on values, “be it in Hong Kong, Moscow or Minsk”, declaring that the EU was “on the side of the people of Belarus”.

EU relations with Turkey will be discussed by European leaders next week at a face-to-face summit. The gathering will be largely devoted to foreign policy problems that were overlooked earlier in the year, as the EU scrambled to deal with the coronavirus.

Cyprus and Greece have been leading the charge for sanctions on Turkey, since Ankara launched research and drilling operations to search for gas reserves in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Cypriot president, Nicos Anastasiades, said on Wednesday the EU should use “all means at our disposal” to get Turkey to give up its “unlawful” activities. In an allusion to Belarus, he said the EU should not set “a double standard” in the way the bloc chooses to deal with improper activity inside and outside its borders.

But many EU leaders oppose hitting Ankara with further penalties after the EU imposed sanctions on two people linked to the drilling earlier this year. Germany, which has been mediating between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece, is especially keen to avoid escalating tensions with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the co-architect of the 2016 EU-Turkey migration deal.

Earlier this week, the EU’s most senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the EU and Turkey had reached “a watershed moment in our relations”. He called on Turkey to remove the Yavuz drilling ship from its position near Cyprus, after Ankara announced it was extending the vessel’s mission until 12 October.

Both the Greek and Turkish leadership are now committed to bilateral exploratory talks, a spokesman for Erdoğan said on Thursday.

Ibrahim Kalin added that Erdoğan’s decision to send the Turkish survey ship Oruc Reis back to port for routine maintenance was “an opportunity that should not be squandered”, indicating that the move is seen as a major diplomatic gesture to create the space for the restart of talks.

Kalin said the climate was conducive for exploratory talks: “I think we have reached a good understanding over the steps that need to be taken over the next few weeks to resume these talks.”

If the Cypriot veto is lifted, diplomats say sanctions against 40 Belarusian officials could come into force within days.

The current list does not include Lukashenko, the Guardian understands. The Baltic states, which have all adopted national sanctions that include Lukashenko, have been calling on the EU to include him on the sanctions list.

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, warned this week that if the violence and oppression continued, the sanctions list could be extended to others, including Lukashenko.

The man often described as “Europe’s last dictator” was on a previous list of EU sanctions, but was removed in 2016, when the EU swept away nearly all sanctions on his government in the belief that it was inching towards reform.