Belarus asked to free its political prisoners

KAREL JANICEK | March 3, 2011 12:07 PM EST | AP

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia Several EU countries told Belarus on Thursday to stop persecuting members of the country's pro-democracy movement.

"Our message is strong," Slovak Foreign Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said. "A country run by a totalitarian regime has no future."

"Our message to President (Alexander) Lukashenko is very clear: no talks with his regime are possible until all political prisoners are released," Dzurinda said.

Dzurinda is chairman of V4, an informal group of EU members made up of his country, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. It met in Bratislava on Thursday, along with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who supported the V4's statement regarding Belarus.

The meeting also was attended by top officials from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, countries that are part of the European Union's Eastern Partnership initiative, which is meant to draw the eastern European nations closer to the EU bloc.

Lukashenko has been in power in ex-Soviet Belarus since 1994. He maintains a hardline regime that stifles dissent and mostly keeps its economy under state control.

He won Belarus' Dec. 19 election with nearly 80 percent of the vote, but the poll was widely regarded as fraudulent. Mass protests were violently dispersed by police, who arrested more than 700 people, including seven of the country's nine opposition candidates.

The arrests prompted the EU and the United States to impose travel sanctions on Lukashenko and other top Belarusian officials and to freeze their assets.

Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Voronecky represented Belarus at Thursday's meeting, but did not publicly comment on the V4's statement.

Before the election, the EU had offered 3 billion euros in aid to Belarus if its ballot was regarded as free and fair. But that offer was canceled after the vote.

Westerwelle and Ashton joined Thursday's meeting in Slovakia because it was designed to review the Eastern Partnership program, which was established two years ago to offer closer economic and political ties with the EU in exchange for a commitment to democracy.

Westerwelle said Thursday that Germany is ready "to assist our partner countries on a democratic path toward Europe."


Partners: Social Network