EU holds off travel ban on Belarus president and allies


THE EUROPEAN Union offered an olive branch yesterday to the authoritarian president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, by extending for nine months a suspension of a travel ban against him and his senior allies.

The EU barred Mr Lukashenko and about 40 other officials, in response to the president's rigged re-election in 2006, but suspended the ban last year when he freed several political opponents from jail and oversaw a general election with fewer gross irregularities than previous votes in Belarus since the ex-state farm boss took power in 1994.

Despite the slight improvement, only Mr Lukashenko's allies won seats in parliament.

Many activists in Belarus urged the EU not to soften its line on Mr Lukashenko, who has crushed critical media and political opposition, and has been blamed for the unexplained disappearance of several of his fiercest adversaries. He denies those claims and denounces opposition leaders as western-backed opportunists with minuscule popular support.

Brussels and Washington have increased their focus on Belarus in recent months, however, after Mr Lukashenko was slow to endorse Russia's attack on Georgia last August and declined to join the Kremlin in recognising the independence of two pro-Moscow Georgian regions. Some western diplomats believe Mr Lukashenko may want to improve ties with the EU to give him more leverage in talks with Russia, or to counterbalance the Kremlin's huge influence.

Following the January gas crisis dispute between Russia and Ukraine, Brussels is keenly aware of Belarus's importance as an energy transit state, handling one-fifth of the EU's gas imports from Russia. No decision was made yesterday on inviting Mr Lukashenko to a May summit in Prague between the EU and members of its "eastern partnership" - Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus.



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