EU sticks with Lukashenko travel ban suspension

The Associated Press

BRUSSELS: The European Union decided Monday not to tighten sanctions against Belarus to give the former Soviet Republic a chance to reverse its dismal human rights record and join a large trade-and-aid pact.

The EU foreign ministers extended until year's end the suspension of a travel ban on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko - whom some in the West call "Europe's last dictator" - and 34 officials in his government.

In a statement the foreign ministers said Belarus had made "certain positive steps" to improve ties.

"The European Union remains ready to deepen its relations with Belarus," the foreign ministers said.

The European Union said it may lift the travel ban on Belarus' leadership and unfreeze assets of Lukashenko and a handful of his aides if "there are further positive developments."

If not, it said, tighter sanctions can be imposed "at any time."

The travel ban and assets freeze date back to 1999. The travel ban was suspended last October. By leaving it suspended, the EU made it possible for Lukashenko to attend a meeting in Prague May 7 with the leaders of the European Union and Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The EU hopes to build closer ties with those six former Soviet republics - where Moscow retains much sway - and launch an "Eastern Partnership," under which the EU would offer free trade, economic assistance, regular security consultations, economic integration, technical expertise and visa-free travel.

The partnership, due to be launched at the Prague meeting, will be open to those eastern neighbors of the European Union that commit themselves to democracy, the rule of law, sound economics and human rights.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Belarus has made some progress in those areas but not enough.

She told the foreign ministers the reappearance of two previously banned newspapers and a cautious review of electoral reforms justify a longer travel-ban reprieve for Lukashenko and his senior aides.

"It would be wrong now to impose new conditions. We wish to seize the opportunity to construct a relationship beneficial to both sides," she said.

But she stressed that, on the whole, Belarus' human rights situation remains dire. A dozen newspapers remain banned by Lukashenko's authoritarian government, which also harasses human rights activists, she said.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb agreed.

"We are not there yet, (but) I think things are moving in the right direction," Stubb told reporters.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said closer ties with the EU would "create incentives for the Belarussian leadership to pursue a more balanced policy."

Sweden and the Netherlands were skeptical but went along with the majority. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt suggested the extent of Belarus' independence from Moscow - and that of other partnership candidates - was an issue.

Forgoing a travel ban on Lukashenko would spare the European Union a repeat of the embarrassment that marred a meeting of European and African leaders in December 2007, when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe gatecrashed the Lisbon summit, despite being banned from traveling to Europe.

The EU's desire to accommodate Belarus reflects the growing importance the bloc gives to stability on its eastern doorstep. The region is crucial to the flow of energy to the EU. But it is also vulnerable to Russia, a point underscored by last summer's war in Georgia.



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