Warily, EU warms to Belarus

By Stephen Castle

BRUSSELS: While a resurgent Russia is spreading alarm among its neighbors, a thaw is under way in relations between the European Union and Belarus, a country once described by President George W. Bush as the last dictatorship in Europe.

In August, the government in Minsk released three political prisoners, and though it is widely seen as part of Moscow's sphere of influence, Belarus has not followed the Russian decision to recognize the Georgian breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations.

European foreign ministers, who meet on Monday, are discussing an end to their ban on top-level contacts with Belarus if minimum democratic standards are observed during parliamentary elections there this month.

A meeting among EU officials and the Belarusian foreign minister, Sergei Martinov, could take place as soon as October.

Since the Russian military intervention in Georgia last month, European governments have begun to look for ways to improve cooperation with nations at the eastern flank of Europe. On Tuesday, the EU promised deeper ties with Ukraine, including talks on a free-trade zone and greater cooperation over energy and visas. The bloc also wants to improve contacts with Moldova.

But Belarus, ruled by an authoritarian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, is a different proposition.

While European officials acknowledge that human rights are restricted in Belarus, some believe that reformers may have gained influence.

They point to the release on Aug. 20 of two Belarusian political prisoners, Syarhey Parsyukevich and Andrey Kim. That followed the decision four days earlier to free another critic of the regime, Aleksandr Kazulin.

Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said there had been progress in Belarus, "in particular the freeing of political prisoners - that is an important step, and we welcome it."

"Mr. Solana had a phone conversation with Minister Martinov, and we are going to follow closely the conduct of the elections," Gallach added. "The way the elections are conducted will define the further steps that can be taken."

In addition to barring political contacts with Minsk, the EU has a travel ban in place on senior government figures.

The United States has also begun to reassess its relations with Belarus. It welcomed the release of prisoners and sent the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, David Merkel, to Minsk.

But skeptics argue that Lukashenko has relaxed his grip only because he knows that the internal opposition is so divided that it poses little threat to him.

Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform in London, said he found Lukashenko's thinking difficult to read.

"In the past, he has flirted with opening up to Europe," Valasek said. "But he usually does this to extract more concessions from Russia."

"But the Georgia war was a game-changing experience," Valasek added. "I don't rule out that he is a bit scared. He doesn't want to be completely under Russia's thumb, and I don't rule out that he may be worried that he is losing his freedom of maneuver."

At an informal meeting of EU ministers last weekend, the European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, called for an early meeting with Martinov. However, EU governments made clear through ambassadors this week that they wanted to wait until after the parliamentary elections, on Sept. 28, before deciding on such a step.

The draft of a declaration due to be issued on Monday by foreign ministers describes the elections as an opportunity for Belarus to demonstrate its respect for democratic values.

In 2006, presidential elections in Belarus were described by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as severely flawed. It said that "arbitrary use of state power and widespread detentions showed a disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression, and raise doubts regarding the authorities' willingness to tolerate political competition."



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