Belarus visa bans suspended

By Toby Vogel

EU foreign ministers confident of talks on human rights with officials in Minsk in the near future

The European Union has suspended travel bans against top officials from Belarus for another nine months. The visa bans were lifted last October for a six-month period after authorities in Minsk released political prisoners and removed some controls on independent media.

In a statement issued at a meeting of foreign ministers of the EU's 27 member states in Brussels, they said that their decision followed "certain positive steps" taken by the government in Minsk.

The foreign ministers said they expected the establishment of a human-rights dialogue between the two sides "in the near future" and stressed that the travel bans could be re-imposed at any time.

The EU is keen on a rapprochement with Belarus, notably in the framework of its Eastern Partnership with six neighbours to the east that is to be launched in Prague in May. Its main elements are to be agreed by EU leaders when they meet in Brussels later this week (19-20 March).

The foreign ministers also adopted a formal statement about Bosnia and Herzegovina in which they expressed their "deep concern" about stalled reform efforts and the general political situation in the country. They welcomed the progress achieved by Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, and Olli Rehn, European commissioner for enlargement, in preparing a "reinforced" EU presence following the phase-out of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international administration in Bosnia.

Currently, the EU Special Representative (EUSR) in Bosnia also serves as international high representative with executive powers. Once the OHR closes down - a step expected later this year - the EUSR will also take over management of the European Commission delegation in Sarajevo. Last week (11 March), EU member states appointed Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat, as EUSR. Inzko was confirmed as high representative two days later.

A decision to downgrade the EU's 2,100-strong Eufor peacekeeping force in Bosnia is likely to be taken in the coming months and was discussed by EU defence ministers during informal talks in Prague last week (12-13 March). The foreign ministers stressed today, however, that even though the security situation in Bosnia was stable, any such decision would "need to take political developments into account".

In their session on general affairs, the foreign ministers failed to reach a compromise on the planned ?5 billion community contribution to the European recovery plan. Alexandr Vondra, deputy prime minister of the Czech Republic, said after the meeting that the member states were "on the right track" to find a compromise at the summit of EU leaders later this week.



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