We come first! Austria defies Belarus crackdown over own ‘interests’ – EU unity crushed

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EU diplomats have claimed that Vienna is deliberately watering down plans to ensure Austrian lenders can keep doing business with Belarusian banks. The bloc wants to slap fresh sanctions on Belarus after its rogue government hijacked a passenger plane flying from Greece to Lithuania to kidnap an opposition activist. Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko has been in the EU’s crosshairs because of his brutal crackdown on political prisoners after he allegedly triggered elections last August.

But according to EU insiders, Austria is holding up the plans to have the sanctions in place before the summer recess.

One source told the EU Observer website: “They want to water down the language to such an extent that the banking sanctions have almost no real impact.”

A second insider added: “It’s a clear case of putting financial interests before principles.”

And a third said: “It’s 26 member states against one, so I think they’ll have to capitulate in the end.”

Austrian finance minister Gernot Blumel claimed to know nothing about the row when pressed by reporters on Thursday.

But, in a statement, the country’s foreign ministry said: “Sanctions should also cover the financial sector. Austria advocates in this respect a ban on securities trading and money-market instruments, which would represent a drastic measure.

“It is of high importance for Austria that financial sanctions do not target the population of Belarus.

“It is in our common interest that Belarus is not pushed even further into the sphere of influence of Russia.”

The new economic sanctions are also due to hit Belarus’s oil, fertiliser and cigarette industries.

And Europe is planning to hit 78 Belarusian regime officials and eight firms closely linked to the rogue dictatorship.

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The UK, Canada and US are also planning their own sanctions regimes against Belarus.

Austrian banks have long operated in and around Belarus and have maintained a presence there even while EU counterparts are pulling out of the country.

Two EU sources claimed Austrian banks are responsible for 90 percent of interbank loans in Belarus.

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Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank has a Belarusian subsidy, called Priorbank, which loans money to regime-owned firms.

A Raiffeisen spokeswoman said: “We are very concerned about the developments in the country and hope for a peaceful solution

“If the EU takes further measures, we hope that they are targeted and don’t harm private companies and worsen the economic situation of the civilian population.”

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