Belarus frees final prisoners in EU sanctions bid


EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Belarus on Wednesday (20 August) pardoned two more dissidents, Syarhei Parsyukevich and Andrei Kim, clearing its jails of political prisoners in a bid to improve relations with the EU.

Mr Parsyukevich and Mr Kim had been serving two-and-a-half and one-and-a-half year sentences, respectively, after taking part in street protests in January.

Their release comes just two days after Minsk freed opposition leader Alexander Kazulin, with no more prisoners of conscience now left behind bars, despite some concern over a US lawyer, Emanuel Zeltser, arrested in March.

The latest move comes as Belarus heads toward parliamentary elections on 28 September, in which a handful of pro-democracy opposition figures are expected to gain seats in the legislature for the first time.

The EU in 2006 and 2007 imposed diplomatic and trade sanctions against Belarus, embarrassing the regime and discouraging western companies from investing at a time when rising Russian gas prices are biting into Belarus' state budget.

Some Belarusian opposition activists fear the prisoner release could be used to justify dropping the EU sanctions without deeper reforms, in a quid-pro-quo deal brokered by Germany's influential ambassador in Minsk, Gebhardt Weiss.

The EU and Belarus are expected to resume technical-level meetings on energy, transport and border control projects in September. The European Commission's new embassy in Minsk is also planning to increase its small staff of just 10 envoys later this year.

But while the prisoner move could see the EU "revise" sanctions to some extent, EU officials do not foresee a major political breakthrough unless the OSCE also adjudges next month's elections to be "free and fair" and Minsk relaxes restrictions on free speech.

Rebranding the regime

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko in March hired British PR expert Lord Bell to improve his country's profile in the West, but the new campaign has been erratic so far.

Mr Lukashenko at first refrained from taking Russia's side on the war in Georgia, but at a meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in Sochi on Tuesday he said Russian forces behaved "perfectly, in a very calm, wise and beautiful manner."

In early August, the president signed a decree equating internet media with TV and printed materials, enabling him to gag opposition publishing activity.

Meanwhile, even as Mr Kazulin's release throws a spotlight on the September parliamentary vote, the timing of the move means it is too late for him to register and run in the elections themselves.

"No one from the real opposition will enter the 'parliament," Mr Kazulin said, NGO Charter97 reports. "Those who will make some agreements with the regime, or who are not dangerous for the regime, or those, the authorities have damaging materials against, will be able to enter the 'parliament'."

"I think the regime wants the EU to recognise the parliamentary elections, but [my release] is obviously not enough," Mr Parsyukevich said. "There have been no changes in the country."



Partners: Social Network