(BRUSSELS) - The European Union decided Monday not to enforce a travel ban against Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, hoping to encourage democratic reforms and dilute Russian influence over its neighbour.
EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, held off using their political stick on Minsk by deciding to uphold a suspension of the travel ban -- aimed at Lukashenko and 35 other senior officials -- for nine more months.
They decided to review the move after that period and "be ready to consider the possibility of lifting the restrictive measures" if there were "further positive developments" in Belarus.
The ministers warned that the travel ban could be reimposed "in the light of the actions of the Belarussian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights".
And to keep up the diplomatic pressure on Lukashenko -- dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States -- the ministers decided to prolong other sanctions, including an arms embargo, for another year.
Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people in an authoritarian fashion since 1994 but has now made attempts at greater openness including the hiring of a Western PR firm and cautious economic reform.
Last October, the foreign ministers suspended a travel ban on Lukashenko and several associates in a move designed to encourage democracy in the wake of disputed elections.
Belarus last year also released leading Lukashenko opponents including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin and former member of parliament Andrei Klimov.
The shifts in Lukashenko's policies have been greeted with less than rapturous enthusiasm by its traditional ally Moscow, which was surprised last month when Belarus criticised a regional security plan.
But the change of heart has been greeted with enthusiasm in Brussels.
The EU "welcomes that certain positive steps have been taken by Belarus" since the travel ban was suspended, including Minsk's cooperation with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the ministers said.
Although they tempered: "Nevertheless, the (European) Council continues to be concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus and the recent cases of violation in this area."
If Belarus makes progress along the democratic road it could also become part of the EU's new "Eastern Partnership" scheme the bloc plans to set up with other former Soviet states Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
The partnership is due to be launched in Prague in May, though no decision has yet been taken on the involvement of Belarus.
And the ministers did not appear to make much progress on whether to invite Lukashenko there, with the question of the invitations being handed on to EU leaders at their summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.