Belarus strains EU relations

By Tony Barber in Brussels

A crackdown on ethnic Poles in Belarus is testing the credibility of the European Union's strategy for closer relations with its eastern neighbours and presenting an early challenge for Lady Ashton, the EU's newly appointed foreign policy supremo.

Up to 40 members of the Union of Poles in Belarus, a non-governmental group which represents the country's Polish minority, have been arrested in recent days and three sentenced to five-day prison terms after they protested against the confiscation of the UPB's offices in the town of Ivyanets, west of Minsk.

For some EU policymakers, it was the most overt act of political repression in Belarus since the bloc reached out to the former Soviet republic by including it last May in its "eastern partnership", a project designed to draw six neighbouring states closer to the EU. The others are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Lady Ashton issued a statement on Tuesday that hinted at a review of Belarus's place in the eastern partnership unless the authorities in Minsk stop-ped abusing minority rights.

"The European Union has demonstrated considerable openness to engagement with Belarus, seen also in Belarus's inclusion in the eastern partnership. The success of this engagement is conditional on steps towards democratisation and upholding human rights, including minority rights," she said.

Lady Ashton faces the delicate task of balancing such human rights concerns, which are felt keenly in Poland but also colour the views of western European countries, with the need not to isolate Belarus so completely it falls under deeper Russian influence.

The 27-nation EU has long criticised the authoritarian rule of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus's president since 1994. But it suspended a travel ban on him in October 2008 after the release of three political prisoners. It has sought in other ways to encourage Belarusan independence from Russia.

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