EU Council President Charles Michel hit out at Belarus on Monday after the country suspended a cooperation deal with Brussels in response to the bloc slapping sanctionson the ex-Soviet nation.
The EU's Eastern Partnership is an initiative to boost ties with its eastern neighbors, but Minsk decided to freeze its pact with the 27 member states when they sanctioned the government over its diversion of a Ryanair passenger flight to arrest a dissident journalist.
Michel, the former Belgian prime minister who now chairs EU summits, slammed the move as "another step backwards" that would "escalate tensions further."
Ties frayed between EU and Belarus
Ties between the EU and other Western governments have been strained since last August when the country's leader, Alexander Lukashenko, claimed victory in a presidential election widely thought to have been rigged.
Lukashenko and Belarusian security forces, then launched a brutal crackdown on supporters of opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who said she was the true winner.
In a statement released on Monday, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said that it "cannot fulfill its obligations under this agreement in the context of sanctions and restrictions imposed by the EU."
Officials warned that the suspension would have "a negative impact" in cooperation on illegal migration and cross-border crime.
Belarus asks EU envoy to leave
The statement also said Belarus's representative to the EU had been recalled to Minsk for consultations. The ministry also "invited" the head of the EU delegation to Belarus to return to Brussels and "convey to his leadership the position of the Belarusian side."
Two EU diplomats confirmed to DW that Dirk Schuebel, a German national who heads the EU’s delegation in Minsk, will return to Brussels "within the coming days."
But the sources said Schuebel has not been declared persona non grata and plans to return to Belarus once he has held talks with senior officials.
Nabila Massarali, a European Commission spokeswoman said "Belarusian authorities have taken another step to self-isolate."
"Keeping channels of communication open is crucial in times of crisis. This has always been our intention," she said.
Opposition hits out at Lukashenko move
Tsikhanouskaya, who now lives in exile in Lithuania, said the move by Belarus to leave the Eastern Partnership "only shows weakness and short-sightedness" of the current regime.
Lithuanian border guards reported a sharp increase in migrants arriving from across the Belarus border earlier this month, with Vilnius accusing Minsk of deliberating allowing them to pass.
The EU launched its Eastern Partnership initiative in 2009. It offered six former Soviet states — Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia — improved economic and political ties in return for diplomatic reforms.
Russia accuses the EU of trying to gain influence in the region, but Brussels insists the scheme is not aimed at Moscow.
jf/rs (AFP, Reuters)