EU leaders approve Belarus joining Eastern Partnership program

BRUSSELS, March 20 (RIA Novosti) - The leaders of the 27 EU member countries have approved the inclusion of Belarus in the bloc's Eastern Partnership program, the Czech prime minister's spokesman said on Friday.

"Belarus is on the list," he said.

The Czech Republic currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency.

The group has yet to decide, however, if it will invite Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to an Eastern Partnership summit in Prague.

The program is a forum intended to facilitate the discussion of visa agreements, free trade deals and strategic partnership agreements with a number of countries from Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. It does not imply future membership of the European Union.

Apart from Belarus, the other countries in the program are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Belarus's long-serving leader, once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, has moved recently to improve ties with the EU, which had long criticized his records on human rights and democracy.

The Eastern Partnership program will be formally launched at a summit in the Czech capital of Prague on May 7.

EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday to extend the suspension of a travel ban on top Belarusian officials, including the president, as part of moves to encourage progress in democracy and human rights.

The ban on Lukashenko entering EU countries was imposed in 2006 in protest against election fraud and human rights violations. However, the 27-nation bloc suspended the ban last October, after Belarus freed several political prisoners.

At their meeting in Brussels, the ministers opted to keep other sanctions against Belarus, including an arms embargo, in force for another year. Although the ban was suspended, its end date has been extended for a year.



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