US, EU "regret" Belarus' "step backwards" on democracy

Brussels - Belarus took a 'step backwards' from democracy in its end-of-year presidential election and the crackdown that followed and must introduce reforms, the European Union and United States said in a rare joint statement.

The election was proclaimed as a sweeping victory by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko and was followed by widespread crackdowns against opposition figures. Western observers, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), condemned the December 19 poll as systematically rigged.

'The elections and their aftermath ... represent a step backwards in the development of democratic governance in Belarus,' US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton said in the statement issued late Tuesday.

After the election, Belarus ordered the closure of the OSCE's offices in Minsk, arguing that the organization had no role to play.

Clinton and Ashton said they 'regret' that decision because 'the mandate of the mission is not completed as the OSCE's critical assessment of the presidential elections indicates.'

The EU has trod a wary path on Belarus in recent years, imposing sanctions on leading regime members but refusing to implement them in the hope of stimulating democratic reforms.

After the election, a number of EU states - including the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden - began pushing for those sanctions to be applied. But Hungary and Italy, a close ally of Russia, opposed the call. EU diplomats are to debate the issue Friday.

Belarus is one of six members of the EU's 'Eastern Partnership' with former Soviet states. The partnership offers trade and visa concessions in return for reforms.

'The EU and US remain willing to assist Belarus in meeting its OSCE commitments in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms,' the joint statement said.


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