BRUSSELS, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- EU senior foreign policy officials met Friday to decide how to punish Belarus without playing into the hands of President Alexander Lukashenko, whose orchestrated diplomatic escalation has diverted attention from abuses in the country.
A mass pull-out of EU ambassadors from Belarus is in the cards, diplomats told Brussels news media, but that is certain to prompt Belarus to close its remaining missions in EU capitals.
Senior European foreign policy strategists want engagement with the authoritarian regime to continue, partly because of its close ties with Moscow, which is at the center of another human rights row.
Belarus set off diplomatic expulsions as it reacted to a Swedish advertising stunt in July in support of democracy in Belarus.
A small plane hired by the Studio Total agency entered Belarus airspace July 26 and dropped hundreds of teddy bears carrying tiny parachutes and messages for democracy.
Lukashenko blamed Sweden's government and expelled the Swedish ambassador. Sweden responded by ordering out three Belarus diplomats and Belarus this week expelled all remaining Swedish diplomats in Minsk.
Studio Total said it did the stunt on its own and Sweden's government had no role.
"It's probably impossible for (Lukashenko) to understand that a small Swedish PR company was even able to make such a move as we did without collaboration from the government," Studio Total's chief Per Cromwell told The Local.se Web site.
Diplomatic opinion in Brussels favors an expulsion of all Belarus diplomats but some differ on such a drastic response, pointing out that will cut remaining links with Minsk that allow the European Union to keep an ear close to the ground.
Other critics of such wholesale response cite EU's timid approach to Moscow, where a much more serious test of Russian democracy is under way with the trial of three Pussy Riot feminists criticized President Vladimir Putin and his Russian Orthodox Church sympathizers.
The difficulty for EU foreign policy aides is in opting for a hard-line position that will both benefit Lukashenko and rule out an early cooling off in the diplomatic crisis.
Swedish Foreign Ministry aides indicated they stood by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt's assertion that Sweden's envoy was expelled for defending human rights in Belarus.
Belarus officials initially denied the teddy bear drop took place but owned up after pictures and videos appeared on the Internet.
Belarus, governed by Lukashenko for the past 18 years, has been frequently accused of human rights abuses and suppression of the media.