EU set to suspend Belarus travel ban


EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU foreign ministers are on Monday (16 March) likely to again suspend a visa ban on 36 Belarus officials after the country over the weekend allowed an "illegal" congress of ethnic Poles.

The travel ban was suspended in October last year in an EU effort to build bridges with president Alexander Lukashenko's repressive regime, but will automatically come back into force on 13 April unless it is renewed.

EU diplomats last week agreed to extend the grace period for at least another six months. But Poland said that if Belarus disrupted a meeting of the "Polish Union of Belarus" in Grodno on Sunday it would veto the move.

The congress took place amid a heavy police presence, Polish media report. Some of the 165 official delegates also complained of harassment ahead of the event. But the meeting marked a change from 2005, when security forces stormed the banned NGO's building and forcibly evicted its leader, Angelika Borys.

Poland is part of a group also including Lithuania, Sweden, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands calling for the EU ministers on Monday to strongly criticise Belarus' backsliding on political reform.

Germany and the Czech EU presidency are taking a softer line to encourage president Lukashenko to take further steps toward the EU, such as declining to recognise Georgia regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states when the question comes before Belarus' parliament in April.

"We are really not impressed with Belarus. We are interested in seeing a deeper, structural commitment to EU standards. Toleration of the Polish congress is a temporary move that could easily be reversed," a Dutch diplomat said.

A Belgian diplomat said it is "not automatic" that President Lukashenko will be invited to a special EU "Eastern Partnership" summit in Prague on 7 May even if the travel ban is suspended.

Belarus late last year released a group of senior political prisoners in to court EU favour after a new show of Russian assertiveness in Georgia. It also needs international financial assistance and foreign investment amid the financial crisis.

Young activists continue to be thrown in and out of jail, however. Thirty three-year old campaigner Yana Palyakova on 7 March committed suicide after allegedly being beaten in police custody and later receiving a prison sentence when she complained.

President Lukashenko last week also confused EU diplomats by going on holiday to Armenia 24 hours before he was due to meet EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Minsk.

Any visa ban suspension on Monday is unlikely to cover four Belarus officials deemed to be directly implicated in the disappearance in 1999 and 2000 of four opposition figures in a still unsolved crime. An election official, Lydia Yermoshyna, is also set to stay on the blacklist.



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