EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Belarus might be allowed to join the EU's new Eastern Partnership policy even if it recognises Georgia's breakaway territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as independent states.
The Belarusian lower house will debate the Georgia question on 2 April, paving the way for a final decision by the country's Senate and its authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.
Vanished persons - suspicion surrounds Mr Lukashenko's role in the cases, which were never investigated (Photo: charter97.org)
The European Commission last week said that if Belarus recognises the two territories, it will "freeze rapprochement." For its part, Georgia says the EU has given diplomatic assurances the move would disqualify Belarus from the partnership project.
But some EU states are taking a more ambiguous position, amid understanding that Russia is exerting economic pressure on Belarus over Georgia and that Belarus' independence is at risk if it is left out in the cold.
Asked by EUobserver if recognition of the two regions would rule out Eastern Partnership membership, a German diplomat said "Nothing is 100 percent, but it might pose a serious problem." A Dutch diplomat said recognition "will not be helpful."
Lithuania - previously a staunch guardian of Georgia's territorial integrity - was the most outspoken.
"It's not that simple. We acknowledge we would face difficulties. But we would have to balance [the Georgia issue] with the fate and destiny of Belarus," Lithuanian foreign minister Vygaudas Usackas told this website. "We need to be open minded in the gradual anchoring of Belarus to the EU."
Ticket to Prague
The Eastern Partnership is a new initiative designed to bring Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan closer to the EU via free trade and visa facilitation deals. It will be launched at an EU summit with the six leaders in Prague on 7 May.
Belarus' participation also hangs on the EU's decision - due in March - on whether or not to again suspend a visa ban on Mr Lukashenko and 40 officials.
The EU ban was lifted for six months last October. Mr Lukashenko has not taken advantage yet. The president, his family and a large entourage on 28 February went on a ski holiday in Mount Kopaonik, Serbia, instead.
The visa decision is being made in a Belarus-friendly climate in Brussels. EU officials praise Minsk for letting two opposition newspapers circulate in kiosks, despite occasional arrests of young activists. EU external relations chief Javier Solana gave an "optimistic assessment" after visiting Minsk last week.
Mr Lukashenko's PR firm, the London-based Bell Pottinger Group, is happy with media coverage. The International Herald Tribune on 23 February ran an op-ed by the Belarus foreign minister debunking Western "myths." The Financial Times on 22 February covered an MEPs' trip to Minsk.
A suitable guest?
The EU-Belarus entente is moving ahead despite outstanding allegations that Mr Lukashenko was involved in the disappearances of four opposition activists in 1999 and 2000.
A report into the events by the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe in 2004 cites a witness saying the president personally ordered the killing of one of the victims, Yuri Zakharenko. Mr Zakharenko vanished on 7 May - the same date as the Prague summit.
Irina Krasovskaya, the wife of another vanished person, wrote to EU foreign ministers in January to remind them that the EU has legal obligations as a signatory to the 2006 UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances.
"He [Mr Lukashenko] is not suitable to be invited until he clears himself. Until there is a real investigation," she said.