EU considering lifting sanctions against Belarus: officials

(AVIGNON) - EU nations, pushed by Poland, are considering lifting sanctions against Belarus following the release of key opposition figures there, European officials said Saturday.

The move comes as Russia is putting pressure on its former Soviet satellite to recognise the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"We will prepare the ground today," an advisor for Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said at the start of a second day of meetings with his EU counterparts in Avignon, southern France.

"The situation has come where we could abandon sanctions," he added.

Poland's view is that if sanctions against Cuba can be lifted with some political prisoners still being held "we have to be fair," to Belarus, he added.

The European Union has welcomed the release last month of Belarus' highest-profile political prisoner, former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin who was jailed in 2006 for leading a protest over alleged corruption in an election which returned President Alexander Lukashenko to power.

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

With EU economic and visa sanctions still in place, Lukashenko -- described as "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, which has adopted similar sanctions -- is seeking to improve his image ahead of parliamentary elections on September 28.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero Waldner said Europeans should send Belarus "a political signal" following the prisoners' release.

The EU could invite the Belarus foreign minister to official talks on the margins of the next EU foreign ministers meeting on September 15 she said.

"I personally would support" that move, she told reporters in Avignon.

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

Ferrero-Waldner said there would be major change in policy before legislative elections in the country scheduled for September 28.

Several other European officials 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.

So far only Nicaragua has done so.

"Of course Belarus can show a real willnginess to open up, to move closer to Western Europe, to Europe, when they will not also recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia," said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet.

"But of course Belarus at the moment is under very heavy pressure from the Russian side," he said.

A European diplomat said Moscow had given Belarus until next Tuesday to do so or to face "European prices" for its oil and gas.



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