EU May Ease Sanctions on Belarus After Release of Prisoners

By James G. Neuger and Leon Mangasarian

Sept. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The European Union may ease sanctions on Belarus to reward the country for releasing three political prisoners under Western pressure.

``We are exploring whether one can have some openings in relations due to the fact that they have released some political prisoners,'' Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters during a meeting of EU foreign ministers today in Avignon, France. ``We're talking for a start, political contacts.''

Belarus, located between Russia and Poland, freed the last three captives in August, including opposition leader Alexander Kozulin, defeated by President Alexander Lukashenko in what international observers called a tainted election in 2006.

A thaw in relations with the former Soviet republic, once labelled ``Europe's last dictatorship'' by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would come as Russia reasserts its influence over countries once controlled by Moscow.

Lukashenko and his inner circle have been barred from travelling to the EU and been subject to an asset freeze since 2004. The U.S. yesterday suspended a ban on dealing with two Belarussian companies, while keeping other sanctions in place, the Associated Press reported from Minsk, the nation's capital.

Belarus, a country of 10 million people, freed the prisoners in advance of its Sept. 28 parliamentary election.

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said the EU should ``very seriously discuss'' easing sanctions, ``but we also should wait for parliamentary elections.''

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said a decision had been made in principle to meet with the Belarus foreign minister, although no date had been set. European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said she would ``very much welcome'' such a meeting.

To contact the reporter on this story: James G. Neuger in Avignon, France at; Leon Mangasarian in Avignon, France at



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