EU set to woo Russian ally Belarus ahead of elections

(BRUSSELS) - European foreign ministers will seek Monday to persuade leaders in Russian-influenced Belarus to hold democratic elections this month, holding out promises of aid given and sanctions taken away.

In a text prepared by EU ambassadors for Monday's meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels, the bloc indicates that it "will re-evaluate the situation in Belarus in the light of the legislative elections and the progress made by Belarus on the road to democratic values and human rights".

If the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko seizes this "opportunity" to "show his respect for democratic values" and promises "effective access" for OSCE observers throughout the election process, then the EU will be "ready to re-examine the restrictive measures in place against Belarus officials," according to the draft text.

In the agreed statement, the 27 EU foreign ministers also welcome the release last month of Belarus' highest-profile political prisoner, former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, who was jailed in 2006 for leading a protest at alleged corruption in an election which returned Lukashenko to power.

Later in the month Belarus released its last two political prisoners to set the stage for renewed ties.

The freeing of the prisoners is a significant step towards Belarus abiding by "the fundamental values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law," the draft statement continues.

Lukashenko, described as "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, is seeking to improve his image ahead of the parliamentary elections on September 28.

Following the prisoner release, Washington also said the move set the stage for a "significant" improvement in ties.

Forty Belarussian figures, including the president, have been banned from entering the EU since the 2006 presidential election which was judged not to comply with international norms.

Several European officials have made it clear that it would be opportune to hold out a hand to Belarus while the country is coming under increasing pressure from Russia to join it in recognising the Georgian rebel regions of South Ossetia and Georgia.

So far only Nicaragua has done so.

The draft agreement for the EU foreign ministers' meeting also holds out the possibility of "positive and concrete measures" on increased ties with Belarus, including official exchanges and trade and cultural initiatives.

The ministers will also stress the possibilities offered by the EU's "neighbourhood" policy that Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine already enjoy, which would permit Belarus to receive tens of millions of euros (dollars) of aid towards structural reforms.

Poland, which neighbours Belarus, has been leading the call for Lukashenko's regime to be allowed access to the neighbourhood policy.

At the previous EU foreign ministers' meeting in France last weekend, Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski argued that EU sanctions against Cuba had been lifted while hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up there.

Polish officials argue that Belarus is a "pivot state" in the struggle for influence between Russia and the West in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

This struggle has been amply illustrated by Russia's military actions in Georgia, which hopes to eventually join both the EU and NATO.



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