With less than three weeks to go before Zimbabwe's March 9-10 presidential elections, the European Union has imposed sanctions on President Robert Mugabe and 19 of his closest associates after the leader of the EU election observers was expelled from Harare last Saturday. Swedish diplomat Pierre Schori told the Times of London the Zimbabwean government "had imposed conditions and restrictions that made it impossible for the EU mission to operate 'with credibility and respect.' " The sanctions bar the 20 targets from traveling to the European Union, freeze the men's EU-based assets, and ban EU members from selling arms that could be used for internal repression to Zimbabwe.
Britain's Independent declared, "The EU measures … convey the clear message, not only to President Robert Mugabe but to the world, that next month's elections are already discredited. Any victory for Mr Mugabe on 10 March will be tainted." Copenhagen's Berlingske Tidende said the European Union had no choice but to impose sanctions: "[It] had been threatening to take this kind of step for months and if it had again held back from taking the required step this time, the foreign ministers would have lost all credibility." (Danish translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
Several commentators dismissed the sanctions as too little, too late, since the ruling elite had ample opportunity to transfer assets to Switzerland and other safe havens outside the European Union. The Times observed that the measures, dubbed "smart sanctions" because they target the inner circle rather than ordinary Zimbabweans, "are hardly going to bring Robert Mugabe's regime crashing down, but they will cramp the style of Zimbabwe's first couple" and will end the "legendary shopping trips to London and Paris" of Mugabe's wife Grace. Times columnist Simon Jenkins said the "trivial, counter-productive and pathetic" measures would "harden the cement of dictatorship," and since the European Union removed all its observers from Harare, "There will be nobody to witness what is inflicted on the opposition."
The Mail & Guardian encouraged the Pretoria regime to toughen its stance against Mugabe, who, it said, "shows no sign of dismantling the machinery of violent intimidation, involving state agencies, set up to ensure his political survival." The editorial asked what good independent election observers can do when the state apparatus is used to undermine democracy: "How can they keep tabs on intimidation if it is abetted by law enforcement agencies? How will they determine whether voters have stayed home out of fear?" Zimbabwe's independent Daily News said, "The exit of the EU observers from the election drama is to be regretted by all Zimbabweans who had hoped that their presence would inhibit the government from unleashing its thugs against the people." Nevertheless, the editorial maintained that most citizens "welcomed the sanctions wholeheartedly." It concluded, "Zanu PF has transformed this country—in two short years—from a nation brimming with hope for the future, to a pariah state. And all this because the party wants to hang on to power."