(BRUSSELS) - European Union nations on Tuesday agreed to seek improved ties with Belarus, and refrained from enforcing a travel ban on its leaders.
EU foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, affirmed in a written agreement that the 27-nation bloc "stands ready to take steps towards upgrading contractual relations with Belarus."
The move is subject to Belarus improving democracy, human rights and the rule of law, as the EU strives to keep pressure on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko -- dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States.
Lukashenko has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people since 1994 but has now made attempts at greater openness -- including the hiring of a Western PR firm and cautious economic reform.
Under the EU decision, the European Commission gets the green light to enter into closer discussions with the Belarussian side to work on the potential for closer cooperation.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, rejected a suggestion that the EU was prepared to gloss over human rights concerns in order to improve ties.
He told a post-meeting press conference that Europe was engaging the Belarussians "to try to move them further in the direction of European values."
The EU has been "disappointed with the pace of progress but we have not given up," he added.
A year ago, foreign ministers suspended a travel ban on Lukashenko and several associates, imposed after a disputed election, in a move to encourage democracy.
They extended the travel ban for a year but refrained from enforcing it, as a further incentive for reform in Belarus.
It was impossible to lift the sanctions altogether "due to the absence of tangible progress," the ministers said.
"After a number of encouraging decisions taken earlier in these areas, the (EU) council deeply regrets the recent lack of significant progress in addressing its concerns in the area of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including as regards the crackdown on peaceful political actions and the continued denial of registration of many political parties," they added.
Hundreds of Belarussians from the opposition gathered Saturday in the capital Minsk for a "European forum" to encourage closer ties with the European Union.