By Rikard Jozwiak
BRUSSELS - Hungary is once again threatening to poke a hole in the European Union's long-standing arms embargo against Belarus, sources not authorized to speak on the record have told RFE/RL.
The embargo, which has been extended annually since its introduction in 2011, needs the unanimity of the 28 EU member states in order to be renewed.
Ahead of a February 28 deadline for the rollover, Hungary -- which managed to exempt biathlon rifles and other arms used in sports from the embargo for the past two years -- is holding back its consent for now, the sources said.
They said Budapest has warned that if other EU members want to secure its backing for another rollover of the arms embargo, they should ensure that an EU document detailing the bloc's future relations with Minsk is adopted swiftly.
The document, called the Belarus Partnership Priorities, has been under negotiation between Brussels and Minsk for two years and includes topics such as people-to-people contacts, environmental issues, economic cooperation, and human rights.
It was to have been ready for signature in 2018, but Lithuania has been insisting on including several safeguards with regard to a nuclear power plant that is being built with Russian financing in Belarus before the text is approved.
The EU introduced the arms embargo in 2011, along with visa bans and asset freezes on four Belarusian companies and 174 individuals including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, after a violent crackdown on demonstrators following the December 2010 presidential election.
The extension of the embargo was discussed by EU officials a few times in January. Sources told RFE/RL that with the exception of Hungary, all EU member states want to keep the issue of its extension separate from the approval of the Belarus Partnership Priorities.
The planned site of the Astravyets nuclear plant has been a concern for Lithuania ever since the project was announced in 2008. Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, is less than 50 kilometers away, which puts the project in violation of recommendations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) made after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, providing for nuclear plants being built no less than 100 kilometers from major population centers.
The Russia-financed project, whose first reactor is expected to be operational by the end of this year, passed an EU stress test in July 2018, although Vilnius pointed out that the test only looked into issues such as seismic activity and not the controversial issue of the location. The peer-review team carrying out the stress test did ask Belarus for an action plan containing all recommended safety improvement measures as well as a timetable, but did not set a deadline for Minsk to meet the action plan.
In a Belarus Partnership Priorities draft seen by RFE/RL, Lithuania calls for Belarus to submit this action plan before the commissioning of the power plant, adding that the plan must be approved by the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG). The draft also states that the EU and Belarus will "engage with a view to Belarus joining the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage and the European Radiological Data Exchange Platform."
One diplomatic source told RFE/RL that Hungary's bid to condition its approval of the arms embargo extension on a rapid adoption of the Partnership Priorities document "would apportion blame to Lithuania and make it harder for the others to point fingers at Hungary alone."
Another said that Hungary was using Belarus as "a test case to see how far it could go" and speculated that a similar tactic could be used in future when it comes to discussing EU economic sanctions on Russia. Moscow has warmer ties with Budapest than with most other EU nations, but Hungary has never openly attempted to halt EU sanctions on Russia, which have been rolled over by unanimity every six months since 2014.
When asked by RFE/RL why Hungary was attempting to link the two issues, a Hungarian official who spoke on condition of anonymity declined to comment on "ongoing procedures in the council."
The matter will now be elevated to the EU ambassadorial level on February 5.
In February 2016, the EU removed the four companies and 170 individuals, including Lukashenka, from the sanctions list, citing what it said were improvements in the human rights situation in the ex-Soviet republic.
The remaining four people are considered to have played key roles in the unresolved disappearances of four Belarusians in 1999-2000 and are expected to remain on the list regardless of what happens to the arms embargo.