Author : DPA
Brussels - European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to keep a visa ban aimed at the Belarusian regime on ice for nine more months, but to extend the ban itself in a bid to draw what has been called "Europe's last dictatorship" closer to the West. "The signal we are sending is that we are open and interested in engaging with Belarus, but on the other hand, we are also committed to the principles of democracy and human rights, which we also want to be implemented in Belarusian society," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
At talks in Brussels, ministers agreed to extend a series of sanctions on top Belarusian figures for one year in a bid to encourage President Alexander Lukashenko to adopt and implement "further concrete measures towards democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms."
These sanctions, introduced in 2006 following accusations that Lukashenko had rigged the country's elections, include a travel ban and an asset freeze on the president and dozens of top officials.
But ministers simultaneously decided to keep the visa ban on ice for nine months as a way of showing Lukashenko the benefits he could gain from a more pro-democracy and pro-Western approach.
"The signal is yes for partnership, and yes also for the monitoring of the situation on the ground, especially when it comes to human rights, democracy and the rule of law," Usackas said.
Ministers initially froze the visa ban in October, two months after Russia's invasion of Georgia.
That invasion both galvanized the EU to push for closer ties with its Eastern neighbours, and impelled Belarus to call for a better relationship with the West.
"It's Belarus itself which outlined their interest to balance their foreign-policy outlook between East and West, and we welcome that," Usackas described the shift.
Monday's decision would be reviewed in December "taking into account the situation in Belarus," ministers agreed in a statement.
At that stage, they could lift the visa bans entirely if there are "positive developments," or they could bring them back in if the situation deteriorates, the statement said.
The suspension of the visa ban opens the possibility that Lukashenko could be invited to a May 7 summit in Prague that will launch the EU's Eastern Partnership, an initiative designed to boost ties with the bloc's Eastern neighbours.
However, ministers did not debate that issue on Monday.
Instead, they insisted that Belarus should stick to the commitments it has signed up to as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
That clause stresses "the importance of respecting the territorial integrity of other countries, in particular those who are invited to join the Eastern Partnership, I mean Georgia," Usackas said.
The EU is deeply concerned at suggestions that Belarus might follow Russia and Nicaragua in recognizing the breakaway Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a Russian initiative which the EU has repeatedly condemned.
Non-recognition is a "fundamental precondition" for joining the Eastern Partnership, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.