BRUSSELS (AFP)--European Union foreign ministers on Monday opposed the idea of reactivating sanctions against Belarus but remained divided over the longer-term treatment of the hardline regime.
"I think the status quo should be unchanged," said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the rotating E.U. presidency, summing up the European view that it is more useful to maintain a dialogue in a bid to improve the human rights situation there.
At the root of the problem are the policies of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, dubbed 'Europe's last dictator,' and what kind of role he and his country should play in an E.U. 'Eastern Partnership' scheme aimed at improving trade and political ties with six former Soviet republics.
A draft agreement prepared for the ministers' meeting welcomed "certain positive steps" made by Belarus and its leader, notably co-operation with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on electoral legislation.
However, the statement, to be agreed by the 27 E.U. foreign ministers, also decried "recent cases of violations" of human rights in Belarus.
The most urgent E.U.-Belarus matter facing the ministers in Brussels was the issue of the travel bans against Lukashenko and 35 of his associates.
Last October, E.U. nations, under pressure from Belarus' neighbors Poland and Lithuania, took the step of suspending the visa bans for six months.
No European minister was arguing against extending the suspension for a further six months. But there were differences over the longer-term treatment of Belarus, which borders Russia to the east and E.U. members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to the west.
"I think we can find a way to plot a course between giving incentive and encouragement to the reform process in Belarus without ignoring the difficulties that remain," said U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
His Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski, echoed Schwarzenberg's line on the sanctions.
"I believe we should maintain the current position" which seems to have alleviated the situation, he told reporters as he arrived for the talks.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet also stressed the need to "keep all channels open" and to put pressure on Belarus not to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia has already done.
If there was no agreement on the sanctions at Monday's meeting, then the visa bans would automatically resume.
That means that those nations most opposed to the sanctions, such as Germany, will have to agree a deal with the others, diplomats said.
The E.U. must, in the coming weeks, also decide whether or not to invite Lukashenko to a summit in Prague in May with the other five 'Eastern Partnership' states - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.