Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Banned From EU

All European Union nations except Portugal agreed Tuesday to impose a humiliating travel ban on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko to protest human rights abuses in Belarus.

Seven government ministers also were barred, a minor victory for Lukashenko. Originally, EU members had wanted to impose a ban on up to 50 members of his entourage.

Lukashenko already has been snubbed by the Czech Republic, which refused to grant him a visa to attend the NATO summit in Prague this week.

Lukashenko spoke by telephone Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin and they agreed to meet in Moscow next week, Interfax reported, citing presidential spokesman Alexei Gromov.

Europe's steps to ostracize Lukashenko will have the added effect of further weakening his position with regard to Russia, said Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politika think tank. With less room to maneuver, the Belarussian president will have little choice but to integrate with Russia on the Kremlin's terms.

"Lukashenko thought that if he shut the door on Putin, he would be immediately embraced by the West," Nikonov said. "It was clear to everybody that it was not going to happen, except to Lukashenko himself."

The travel ban could be a good "educational measure" and encourage Lukashenko, whose government had been forced to settle Belarus' multimillion-dollar debt to Gazprom, to yield to Moscow on integration, he said.

Last summer, Putin offered Lukashenko two scenarios for merging the two countries: fast de facto absorption of Belarus into Russia or an EU-like union with a common parliament.

At the time, Lukashenko responded with angry statements and said integration should be based on the process laid out in the 1996 union treaty he signed with then-President Boris Yeltsin.

Putin later said he would consider the old plan, but only if it meant real steps forward.

Vladimir Frolov, an official with the State Duma's foreign affairs committee, said the EU travel ban could be an effective means of putting pressure on Lukashenko. He pointed to the travel ban the European Union imposed in 1999 on former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his entourage, who he said provided the financial basis for the authoritarian regime.

"I followed the Balkans quite closely back then and remember that this was exactly the measure that was most sensitive and painful for Milosevic's entourage and the people who influenced policies," Frolov said.

EU diplomats said the blacklist of seven Belarussian ministers was much shorter than originally planned due to concerns that it might be seen as punishing the country rather than its rulers, Reuters reported from Brussels.

After seeing Lukashenko spurn Putin's proposals, Russia's political elite began to diversify its Belarussian contacts. Union of Right Forces leader Boris Nemtsov tried to persuade the Kremlin to establish direct contacts with leaders of the Belarussian opposition and then traveled to Minsk for talks with the opposition, only to get deported back to Moscow on Oct. 23.

Last week, Nemtsov organized hearings in the State Duma on the union with Belarus. "How can perpendicular countries be brought into a union while one is authoritarian and the other democratic?" Nemtsov asked at the hearings.

"I think we should not waste energy creating a union while Lukashenko is the leader of Belarus," seconded Valery Draganov, a Fatherland-All Russia deputy and former head of the State Customs Committee.

Nemtsov is not acting as the Kremlin's instrument in reaching out to the Belarussian opposition, but his policy is likely coordinated with the Kremlin, said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

The debate among Russia's political elite on how to deal with Lukashenko has overshadowed discussion of integration, Ryabov said.

While Nemtsov has taken a hard-line approach, State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov has taken a more conciliatory approach.

"It is something of a good cop-bad cop tactic," Nikonov said.

Seleznyov made a one-day visit to Minsk on Monday, and Lukashenko reportedly told him that his desire to merge with Russia remains unchanged. This is because of his economy's dependence on Russia and because "no one can blot out the fact that Belarussians and Russians are one people," Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta quoted Lukashenko as saying at the meeting.

Officials in Belarus blamed Washington for the EU ban, although Belarus' Foreign Ministry said it had yet to decide on its response as the EU had not informed it formally of its decision, Reuters reported.

"This is Uncle Sam who has decided to pull the strings of its puppets in Europe. ... We must respond with appropriate measures," said Nikolai Cherginets, head of Belarus' parliamentary committee on international affairs.

Portugal, the only holdout, is part of the EU's open-border Schengen zone. Diplomats said Portugal would only be allowed to grant a national visa to those on the Belarus blacklist, not a visa for the whole Schengen area, Reuters reported.

Portugal has been pressing for a review of the EU's policy on visa bans after recent disagreements with other member states involving southern Africa.

Further complicating the picture, Portugal is due to host a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe later this year, EU diplomats said. Belarus is an OSCE member and could undermine the meeting in retaliation for a visa ban on Lukashenko and his aides. Ironically, one reason for the latest moves to isolate Lukashenko is his decision to expel OSCE observers after the body called his re-election in September 2001 fraudulent.

Staff Writer Yevgenia Borisova contributed to this report.