European Union countries have agreed to reprimand Minsk for expelling all Swedish diplomats, including the country’s ambassador, in a row over a pro-democracy stunt by activists involving an air drop of teddy bears into Belarus.
After an emergency meeting in Brussels, Olof Skoog, a Swedish diplomat who chairs talks on foreign policy issues among EU states, said that the bloc would send a “very clear message” to the government of Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president.
The row erupted after a Swedish public relations firm dropped hundreds of parachuted toys bearing pro-democracy messages into the ex-Soviet state last month.
“Everyone around the table were absolutely clear that this was not just a situation merely between Sweden and Belarus. It’s a situation that affects the EU’s relations with Belarus,” Skoog said.
“There is going to be a very clear message to all Belarusian ambassadors around Europe in the next few days expressing full solidarity with the Swedes on this,” he said.
Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, said that the country’s ambassador Stefan Eriksson was expelled from Belarus because of his pro-rights stance and meetings he had with the country’s opposition.
Belarus also withdrew all of its embassy staff from Sweden over the dispute.
The EU message came at a time when the bloc are preparing for a regular review of sanctions against Lukashenko in October.
Sanctions were expanded earlier this year amid growing concerns in the EU over civil rights abuses in Belarus.
EU governments also briefly withdrew their ambassadors from the country in February as relations with Minsk continued to slide.
Current measures include a visa ban and an asset freeze imposed on Lukashenko and his inner circle including several businessmen linked to him. More than 30 companies from Belarus are banned from doing business in the EU; an arms embargo is also on place.
This week authorities in Belarus arrested and fined two journalists for posing for photographs holding the air-dropped teddy bears.
Relations between Minsk and the West took a sharp downturn in 2010 after a disputed election that handed power again to Lukashenko.