MINSK Belarus on Tuesday told the ambassador of the European Union and that of Poland to leave the country and recalled its own envoys from Brussels and Warsaw, sparking anger in the EU and plunging relations between Minsk and the 27-member bloc to a new low.
The Belarussian foreign ministry made the announcement just as the EU was widening its sanctions against the ex-Soviet republic, imposing travel restrictions on 21 judges and senior police officers because of Belarus's poor human rights record under President Alexander Lukashenko.
In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called EU ambassadors together to discuss the situation and diplomatic sources said they might be considering pulling all remaining EU members' envoys out of Minsk.
"This is the last dictatorship, the last dictator in Europe, and we will not let ourselves be intimidated by such actions against a European institution or against a member state," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Brussels.
"The European Union and Poland can rely on Germany's solidarity. The dictator fools himself when he thinks he can divide us ...I suggest we all recall our ambassadors from Belarus. This is what Germany will do," he said.
"This step will get a response from the whole of the EU," Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said in Warsaw. In a statement, he described the move as an "unfriendly act" towards the whole of the bloc.
"The Belarussian authorities are clear on conditions for restarting a political dialogue with the EU: that is putting an end to all repressions and embarking on a democratisation path," Bosacki said.
Poland, which shares a border with Belarus, has played an active and leading role in formulating EU policy towards Minsk - often drawing fire from Belarus for doing so. Bosacki said Poland's envoy had been singled out because of Warsaw's leading role in drawing up wider sanctions.
The Belarussian officials targeted in the new EU action are banned from travelling to EU member countries and any of their assets held by EU companies will be frozen.
"It has been suggested that the head of the EU delegation to Belarus and the ambassador of Poland to Belarus return to their capitals for consultations to communicate to their leadership the firm position of the Belarussian side that pressure and sanctions are unacceptable," Belarussian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Savinykh said in a statement.
Savinykh said Minsk was recalling its own envoys from Brussels and Warsaw and could take "other measures to protect its interests" under further pressure.
He also said Belarus would blacklist the people who facilitated the introduction of sanctions against it.
The new sanctions seemed likely to increase Belarus's isolation, making it still more reliant on long-time ally Russia which bailed it out at the peak of a financial crisis last year.
"By burning the bridges (in their relationship) with the West, the Belarussian authorities are putting themselves in a very dangerous situation, losing room for maneuver in case their ties with Russia sour again," Belarussian political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said.
Lukashenko, in power in the nation of 10 million since 1994, has tolerated little dissent, cracking down on public protests and jailing opposition leaders.
His re-election for a fourth term in December 2010 sparked mass street protests by the opposition, which led to several opposition candidates who ran against him being arrested.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the latest move by Minsk would not affect Warsaw's position. "We are not changing our stance about the necessity of the sanctions," he said. "But it's hard for me to comment on this particular situation."
Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund said it would not replace its representative in Belarus when the current one leaves in April.
Belarus is still seeking a fresh IMF loan to refinance the $3.6 billion it must repay to the Fund in 2012-2014, though such financing is very unlikely to be granted because of the lack of market reforms and the worsening political climate.
(Additional reporting by Sebastian Moffett and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Richard Balmforth and Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Tim Pearce)