Teddy-bear stunt leads to EU slap of Belarus

BRUSSELS Fri Aug 10, 2012 1:20pm EDT

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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belarus's relations with the West took a turn for the worse on Friday as EU governments agreed to reprimand Minsk for expelling the Swedish ambassador in a row over a pro-democracy stunt involving an air drop of teddy bears on Belarus's territory.

At an emergency meeting in Brussels, senior envoys of European Union states said the dispute, in which Belarus also withdrew its embassy staff from Sweden, would damage the bloc's already strained relations with the government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

The row erupted when a Swedish public relations firm dropped hundreds of parachuted toys bearing pro-democracy messages into the hardline former Soviet republic 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," Olof Skoog, a Swedish diplomat who chairs talks on foreign policy issues among EU states, 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.

The EU message comes at a time when its governments are preparing for a regular review of European 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.

Details of EU sanctions are on: here

Relations between Minsk and the West took a sharp downturn in 2010 after a disputed election that handed power again to Lukashenko.

This week authorities in Belarus arrested and fined two journalists for posing for photographs holding the air-dropped teddy bears.

(Reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Adrian Croft and Ethan Bilby; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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