MINSK/BRUSSELS The European Union and Belarus made tit-for-tat withdrawals of ambassadors on Tuesday in an escalating row over the EU's use of sanctions to punish Minsk's human rights record.
As the EU widened its sanctions to include 21 judges and senior police officers, Belarus told the ambassador of the European Union and that of Poland to leave the country, and recalled its own envoys from Brussels and Warsaw.
Several hours later, EU states said they would support Poland and the EU by withdrawing country ambassadors in Minsk and protest to Belarussian ambassadors in EU countries where they are present.
"In expression of solidarity and unity, it was agreed that the ambassadors of the EU member states in Minsk will all be withdrawn for consultations to their capitals," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. "All EU member states will also summon Belarussian ambassadors to their Foreign Ministries."
The moves marked a new low in relations between Belarus and the 27-member bloc, which have been worsening since long-ruling President Alexander Lukashenko's disputed victory in a December 2010 election.
"This is the last dictatorship, the last dictator in Europe, and we will not let ourselves be intimidated," 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."
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.
Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said Poland's envoy had been singled out because of Warsaw's leading role in drawing up wider sanctions.
The Belarussian authorities need to be clear on conditions for restarting a political dialogue with the EU, he said in Warsaw: "That is, putting an end to all repressions and embarking on a democratisation path."
The Belarussian officials targeted in the EU sanctions are banned from travelling to EU member countries, and any of their assets held by EU companies will be frozen.
Belarussian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei 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 had facilitated the introduction of the sanctions.
"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," Savinykh said in a statement.
The sanctions seemed likely to increase isolation of Belarus and make 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 manoeuvre 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.
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 Justyna Pawlak and Luke Baker in Brussels and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Writing by Richard Balmforth, Olzhas Auyezov, Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Alison Wililams)