E.U. continues to reach out to Belarus

By Stephen Castle

BRUSSELS: European Union foreign ministers agreed Monday to continue reaching out to Belarus, one of Moscow's closest allies, by suspending for a further nine months a travel ban on the country's president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, despite worries about his human rights record.

The decision paves the way for Belarus to play a part in a new aid and trade partnership between the European Union and a group of eastern countries seen as falling within Russia's sphere of influence.

Concerned about Moscow's political and economic hold over key energy transit countries on its doorstep, Europe is seeking to offer these nations the chance of closer ties to the E.U. within a new grouping called the Eastern Partnership.

This will be started at a summit meeting in Prague on May 7, and will include deals on free trade, closer energy ties, easier access to visas and financial assistance programs worth ?600 million, or $780 million, over two years.

But Belarus, sometimes described as the last dictatorship in Europe, has tested the E.U.'s ability to extend its "soft power" into Moscow's backyard.

Because of the government's human rights record, key officials in Belarus - including Lukashenko - had been subject to an E.U. visa ban since 1999. After the release of some political prisoners last year, a temporary relaxation was announced in October.

On Monday, E.U. foreign ministers prolonged for nine months the suspension of the visa ban, saying they aimed "to encourage the adoption and implementation of further concrete measures toward democracy and respect to human rights."

But as a precaution they also extended the original political sanctions for 12 months, which means they could be reimposed when the nine-month suspension expires.

E.U. foreign ministers also left themselves the option of taking a tougher line if Belarus bows to pressure from Russia to give diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which declared independence from Georgia following the military conflict there last year.

Karel Schwarzenberg, foreign minister of the Czech Republic, which holds the E.U.'s rotating presidency, said the complex decision reflects "the mixed situation we have seen in Belarus we have seen in the last few weeks." He added that "recent cases of violation of human rights remain a concern for us."

No decision was made on whether to invite Lukashenko to Prague in May for the meeting to start the Eastern Partnership. The E.U. is likely to postpone any invitation until closer to the event in case it becomes clear that Belarus intends to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or commits blatant human rights abuses.

As things stand, however, the travel ban will not apply to Lukashenko at the time of the Prague meeting on May 7. That means the Belarussian president could be invited along with the leaders of the European Union and Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Whether Lukashenko wants to go to Prague remains unclear. There is some evidence that pressure from Moscow is prompting him to distance himself from the Europeans.

Last week the European external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, had to postpone a visit to Minsk one day before her scheduled departure because Lukashenko changed his plans at the last minute. Instead of being in Minsk to meet her, he had organized a visit to Armenia on short notice.

Some E.U. diplomats believe that, if Belarus is invited to Prague in May, Lukashenko might send a representative to Prague rather than going in person.



Partners: Social Network