By Ulrich Speck
BRUSSELS -- Foreign ministers from the European Union are gathering in Brussels to decide whether to extend a recent easing of sanctions against Belarus, intended to foster closer ties despite continued criticism over rights and democracy issues.
The EU's 27 members are weighing arguments for and against travel bans against 40 high-ranking Belarusian officials that were initially suspended for six months in October.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, has cautiously emphasized positive developments in the bloc's ties with Belarus. She told the European Parliament on March 12 that "most probably it will go into the same direction as now, because we are not yet satisfied, but at the same time we have seen some positive steps."
Ferrero-Waldner had been forced the same day as her remarks to cancel a visit to Minsk after Lukashenka, on short notice, called off the meeting in favor of a visit to Armenia.
That last-minute cancellation appears to have had no negative impact on the overall direction of EU policy toward Minsk.
But the move incited speculation about the strength of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's interest in closer ties with its western neighbors.
Lukashenka and other top officials were banned from traveling within the EU and limited economic sanctions targeted Belarusian companies after allegedly rigging a vote in 2006, but EU ministers suspended the travel restrictions after a number of political prisoners were freed.
EU officials hinted on March 13 that a majority of European capitals were clearly in favor of closer engagement with the country that has been dubbed by some "Europe's last dictatorship."
Previous isolationist policies have been seen within Brussels circles as ineffective. Instead of encouraging political reform and improving human rights in the country, the argument goes, sanctions have merely pushed Minsk closer to neighboring Russia, which is keen to keep the country in its sphere of influence.
Another key argument for keeping the sanctions suspended for at least another six months is connected to the real prize in the short term: Belarus's inclusion in the Eastern Partnership.
Backers note that an invitation to join the partnership -- an EU initiative designed to bring Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and possibly Belarus closer to the bloc -- essentially would be precluded if the travel ban were still in effect.
A meeting of EU heads of governments and states known as the Spring Council, slated for March 19-20, is expected to green-light the initiative, which is among the Czech Republic's stated priorities during its six-month EU Presidency.
The EU foreign ministers currently gathering in Brussels were also expected to discuss the European Commission's economic recovery plan, which includes a proposal to spend 5 billion euros on infrastructure projects, including some initial funding for the Nabucco gas pipeline.
But there has been controversy over whether the Nabucco project -- stretching from Turkey to Austria and designed to decrease the EU's energy dependence on Russia -- should be included in the proposal.
Berlin had signaled its resistance, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel saying Nabucco does not need financial support from the European Union in order to go ahead. A final decision on the commission's recovery plan will be made at the Spring Council.
The foreign ministers are also expected to confirm the appointment of Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko as the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The group is also expected to reaffirm the EU's commitment to Afghanistan, including its engagement for police reform and support for the planned August elections. The EU's financial and military contributions to Afghanistan will also be discussed during the meeting, as part of the preparation of the EU-U.S. summit to be held in Prague on April 5.