EU Ministers Woo Russian Ally Belarus Ahead Of Polls

BRUSSELS, Sept 12, 2008 (AFP) - European foreign ministers on Monday held out the prospect of aid and lifted sanctions in a bid to persuade leaders in Russian-influenced Belarus to hold democratic elections next month.

The 27 foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, said the EU would "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," they said in a joint text.

They also welcomed the release last month of Belarus' highest-profile political prisoner, former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin and the remaining political prisoners being held there.

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 EU statement continued.

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

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

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.

The EU ministers also held out the possibility of "positive and concrete measures" for progressively improving ties with Belarus, including official exchanges and trade and cultural initiatives.

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

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

Sikorski paid a surprise flash visit to Belarus on Friday to discuss relations between Minsk and the European Union.

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

Last week a major Belarus opposition party leader warned that Western countries would turn a blind eye to fraud in next month's legislative election and recognise a win for the outgoing authoritarian regime.



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