EU extends sanctions reprieve for Belarus

By David Brunnstrom and Ingrid Melander

BRUSSELS, March 16 (Reuters) - The European Union struck a delicate compromise deal on Monday to keep up pressure on Belarus over human rights while trying to enhance cooperation.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to renew for one year a travel ban on President Alexander Lukashenko -- imposed after he was accused of rigging his 2006 re-election -- and 40 other Belarussian officials.

However, they also extended for nine months a suspension of sanctions imposed 12 years ago. These were first suspended last year as a reward for the freeing of political prisoners.

The former Soviet republic, a transit state for Russian energy exports to Europe, was once described by Washington as Europe's last dictatorship. But the EU has little to show from years of isolating it, and wants to encourage reform.

The decision was taken to encourage "further concrete measures towards democracy and respect for human rights", a statement by the ministers said.

"The European Union remains ready to deepen its relations with Belarus, subject to progress made by Belarus," it said, while reiterating concerns about recent rights violations.

Belarus's foreign ministry gave a guarded welcome to the move, but called for the lifting of all punitive measures.

"This decision will allow pragmatic dialogue between Belarus and the EU to continue," ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said in a statement issued in Minsk.

"At the same time, we firmly believe it is long overdue to proceed with a full lifting of all restrictions which hinder the development of normal relations between Belarus and the EU."


Ministers in Brussels reached no decision on whether to invite Lukashenko to a summit in Prague in May between the EU and six ex-Soviet states, to which it is offering 350 million euros ($450 million) in aid.

The Eastern Partnership initiative covers Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus, and is seen as vital to EU hopes of weaning itself off Russian energy. Azerbaijan is an oil producer, and the rest are transit nations for energy supplies from Russia and elsewhere in the region.

The scheme does not promise EU membership but is sure to irk Russia, which sees the region as its sphere of influence.

The EU also wants to encourage Lukashenko to resist Russian pressure to recognise Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which declared independence last year after a war between Georgia and Russia.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said change was needed after sanctions had yielded nothing. "Now for one year we have tried to open up a little ... there have been some improvements but we are not there yet," he said. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said isolating Belarus was not the answer. "The other option is that the pressure of Russia will increase," he said.

Question marks remain about how keen Minsk is for closer ties with Brussels. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said she regretted having to postpone a visit to Minsk last week after Lukashenko baffled EU officials by cancelling at the last moment and going on a trip to Armenia. (Additional reporting by Julien Toyer, Ilona Wissenbach and Mark John and by Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk)



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