By Ahto Lobjakas
BRUSSELS -- EU foreign ministers are set to announce that the bloc will extend for another year its dual approach in dealing with Belarus, applying sanctions on the one hand, but simultaneously suspending them on the other.
A draft EU declaration, seen by RFE/RL, says the bloc will maintain the sanctions -- mainly travel bans leveled against top Belarusian officials, which were first imposed in the wake of the country's flawed March 2006 presidential elections, and then suspended in large part in October 2008. The policy is expected to be made formal on November 17, on the second day of a two-day foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.
But even as it maintains the status quo in its relationship with Minsk, the EU is prepared to offer some encouragement as well. Brussels is offering Belarus talks on easing EU visa rules, as well as the more distant prospect of negotiating a new bilateral cooperation accord.
The decision was all but made official this morning by the EU external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who spoke ahead of the EU foreign ministers' discussions on Belarus.
"On the one hand, the sanctions are going on. But on the other hand, their suspension means that there is a balance between encouragement and recognition that, still, too little has been done to promote reforms," Ferrero-Waldner said.
The text of the EU decision paints a balanced picture of Belarus's progress -- and lack thereof -- since the bloc's stick-and-carrot policy was put in place a year ago.
The decision to relax EU sanctions on Belarus was made in October 2008, in the wake of the Russia-Georgia war. At the time, the EU feared Russia might attempt to bring other neighbors under its sway. EU overtures to Belarus followed, and the country was invited to join the EU's Eastern Partnership in April this year.
In recounting Belarus's recent advances, the EU welcomed the release of political prisoners and Minsk's agreement to participate in various kinds of dialogue with Brussels, including talks on the human rights situation in the country.
EU officials have also welcomed steps by Minsk to introduce a degree of media freedom and the willingness of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime to take international advice on electoral reform.
The new EU statement, due to be formally adopted on November 17, says there needs to be more progress in bringing Belarus's electoral laws in line with international standards. Freedom of expression, assembly, and political association must also be strengthened.
The declaration notes that there has been little "recent" progress, and "regrets" continued crackdowns on peaceful political protests and the continued refusal by the authorities to register "many political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and independent media."
Belarusian authorities refuse to register Belarusian Christian Democracy, an opposition political party created in February 2009.
On October 16 in Minsk, police cracked down on a demonstration of solidarity with the families of disappeared politicians in Belarus. All of the participants in the demonstration were herded by policemen onto a bus and detained; some of them were harshly beaten.
The EU statement also notes with regret recent death sentences imposed in Belarus. In the most recent case, the Belarusian Supreme Court in October rejected an appeal from Andrey Zhuk to commute the death sentence imposed on him earlier this year. It is estimated that since 1997, Belarus has executed more than 160 people sentenced to death.
The EU declaration also includes a promise that travel restrictions on top Belarusian officials could be lifted "at any time, in light of actions by the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights." However, the statement also makes it clear the reverse also applies -- the continued suspension of the ban is conditional on Minsk's willingness to cooperate with the EU.
Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner said she strongly hopes the Belarusian authorities will accept the EU's gesture of "pragmatic" goodwill.
"I hope that Belarus will use that, will take it up, and I also hope that these reform plans indeed can provide good incentives for more moves toward democracy in Belarus and reflect [the] somewhat more pragmatic [EU] approach for which I myself particularly have always [pressed]," she said.
Ferrero-Waldner said "some" EU member states continue to feel Belarus has done too little to deserve more EU concessions. This is a reference to behind-the-scenes discussions in Brussels over the past few weeks that accompanied the drafting of the new statement. During these discussions, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, and a few other countries arguing for a thaw in EU-Belarus relations lined up against Britain and the Netherlands.
The outcome is a compromise where the sanctions and their suspension are both extended for their maximum term and a highly tentative offer is held out to Minsk to begin talks on visa liberalization. Also, the EU for the first time is formally testing the waters with regard to a negotiating a new cooperation treaty with Minsk.
Meanwhile, the EU is offering a "joint interim plan to set priorities for reforms, inspired by the action plans developed in the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy."
This compromise appears to enjoy the tacit support of Poland, Belarus's closest EU neighbor. Jacek Protasiewicz, a European Parliament deputy, said on November 13 the parliament's delegation for EU-Belarus relations supports the ministers' two-pronged approach.
Protasiewicz said it was too early to lift the sanctions altogether, but also noted their suspension is necessary for further advances in EU-Belarusian relations.
"There is still a chance for some changes, for some reforms, as well as introducing a new area of cooperation between the European Union and the Belarusian people -- not only the Belarusian authorities -- particularly [when it comes to ] the visa regime," Protasiewicz said.
"If the sanctions are, once again, imposed, there [will be] no chance of having a PCA [Partnership and Cooperation Agreement] or any kind of legal agreement between the European Union and Belarus on which basis we could build a new, more liberalized visa regime for Belarusian citizens."
Protasiewicz said that the current situation where Belarusians have to pay nearly twice as much for Schengen visas to the EU as Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Russians, is "very unfair."