EU looks for closer ties with Belarus after Georgian war (1st Lead)


Avignon, France - The European Union must open the door to a rapprochement with Belarus if it is to counter Russia's growing assertiveness in eastern Europe, EU foreign ministers said Saturday.

'We should encourage Belarus to improve the way they conduct their elections and we should give them incentives. We need a process of rebuilding trust,' Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

'It is a very good time to rethink our relations with Belarus. Belarus is sending desperate signals to the West,' Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said.

Officially, Saturday's talks were set to focus on the EU's relationship with Russia and Georgia following their war in August.

But with French President Nicolas Sarkozy - the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency - set to travel to Moscow for talks on the issue on Monday, the officials turned their focus to the question of how to respond to Russia's new assertiveness.

And following Belarus' release of its final political prisoners during the summer, pressure is now growing within the bloc for a strong sign to the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko that Minsk has something to gain from bringing in democratic reforms.

Belarus 'is not a regime that we admire but we should recognize what has been done. We now have an anomaly, we've dropped sanctions on Cuba where there are 260 political prisoners, Belarus has released its prisoners,' Sikorski said.

The EU currently has travel bans in place against Belarusian regime figures, and its first step should therefore be to step up diplomatic contacts, officials said.

'I would personally support' an invitation of the Belarusian foreign minister to a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on September 15, EU foreign-affairs commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said.

'We've had heavy political restrictions of different sorts and we're in the process of looking at some of them in the light of what's been happening,' Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.

However, member states remained divided on whether they should make a move before Belarus holds elections on September 28.

'It would be good to send some signals now, and in case of democratic free and fair elections to change (the EU's) general policies,' Vaitiekunas said.

'We'll have to have a look at that at a later stage,' Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said.

EU officials say that a key question is whether Belarus will follow Russia's lead and recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - something the EU firmly rejects.

'Belarus can show real willingness to open up, move closer to Western Europe if they do not also recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But of course Belarus at the moment is under very heavy pressure from Russia,' Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said.



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