EU states still keen to relax Belarus sanctions


EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Poland and Lithuania remain keen to review EU sanctions on Belarus despite a critical OSCE verdict on the weekend's parliamentary elections, with the country's neighbours saying it is more important to hold back Russia than to punish the flawed vote.

"The relaxation of the visa ban should be interpreted as a separate issue from the elections. It is an instrument to maintain dialogue with [President] Lukashenko," a senior Lithuanian official told EUobserver on Monday (29 September) on the prospect of softening the EU's travel ban list.

Lukashenko has started being photographed with his young son, in an attempt to soften his image (Photo:

"This is important because the Russians will press Minsk heavily until the end of the year. The drama will continue and we have to play a part in it," he added, explaining that the EU could start by taking off junior people who have shown "personal courage" on reform.

The EU travel ban list was built up in four stages since 2004 and covers 41 people including election officials, judges and state broadcasters as well as hard targets such as President Lukashenko himself, KGB chairperson Stepan Sukhorenko and former security council head Viktor Sheyman, who was implicated in running a government death squad by the Council of Europe.

"There are various options, such as partial or temporary suspension [of the list] with various conditions attached," Polish deputy foreign minister Andrzej Kremer told the Rzeczpospolita daily. "The elections are just one element of a longer process. It's a game, in which Minsk must decide if the EU or Russia is the greater economic force that can guarantee its future."

The European Commission and the French EU presidency also left the door open to potential sanctions changes.

"The preliminary findings of the [OSCE] mission include both some positive indications but also a number of negative elements," external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement. "The EU must now reflect on how best we can engage with Belarus, its government and people."

The French EU presidency - not normally lost for words - declined to react. "We cannot make any decision ourselves. It is a matter for the 27 [EU states] to decide by consensus," a French spokesperson told this paper.

EU diplomats are worried that if Belarus is left isolated, the new parliament's first job will be to formally recognise Georgian rebel enclaves South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. The move would push the country toward Russia and complicate EU policy in South Caucasus.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will visit Minsk on 6 October to chair a meeting of the "Council of Ministers" - a joint Russia-Belarus institution designed to prepare for future state union. The visit is likely to see Mr Putin talk about gas price rises for 2009, with Mr Lukashenko dependent on billions a year in Russian energy subsidies to stay in power.

OSCE unhappy

The OSCE verdict on Sunday's parliamentary vote said there were "minor improvements" such as state TV and radio's decision to repeat - once - the candidates' five minute air time slots.

But the Vienna-based security club said "the elections ultimately fell short of OSCE commitments for democratic elections" after none of the 78 opposition candidates made it into the lower house.

In 37 percent of cases OSCE monitors were not even able to watch the vote count, but forced to sit meekly several metres away from counting tables in the same room. The opposition was able to put just 43 people into 69,845 places on the "precinct electoral commissions" responsible for counting. Millions of Belarusians took part in "early voting" with no oversight at all.

Some opposition candidates observed developments with a sense of humour despite a general feeling of bitter disappointment.

A couple weeks ahead of the elections, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Lidia Yermoshina, had publicly mused that if she is taken off the EU travel ban list, she will visit France, Italy and Spain. "If the sanctions are upheld, Yermoshina can walk around on the Abkhaz coast instead of the Cote D'Azur," opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko told PAP.



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