EU ministers lift travel ban on Belarus leader Lukashenko
In a move designed to encourage democracy
EU foreign ministers suspended Monday a travel ban on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and several associates in a move designed to encourage democracy in the wake of disputed elections, according to AFP.
At talks in Luxembourg, the ministers lifted the bans "in order to encourage dialogue with the Belarussian authorities and the adoption of positive measures to strengthen democracy and respect for human rights," a statement said.
Forty-one Belarussian figures, including the hardline president, were denied entry into the European Union and had their assets frozen after a 2006 presidential election was judged not in compliance with international norms.
Now only four figures deemed responsible for disappearances in the country in 1999-2000, as well as Belarussian electoral commission head Lydia Yermoshina, remain on the travel ban list.
Lukashenko -- in power since 1994 and dubbed "the last dictator in Europe" -- is one of those newly authorised to travel into and around the European Union, an EU presidency spokeswoman said.
However, while most of the visa bans were suspended for six months, the asset freeze remains in place for all 41.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, calling the agreement "a very important beginning" said that an official EU mission would travel to Minsk "in a matter of weeks," in another sign of improving ties.
The suspension of the travel bans will be re-examined in six months to see if there has been any movement towards democracy in the former Soviet republic.
"The European Union reiterates that it remains ready to deepen its relations with Belarus and to review the restrictive measures," the ministers said in their statement.
They pledged to help Belarus improve its democracy and human rights if requested.
Belarus Foreign Minister Serge Martynov, who held talks on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting, said his country was "interested in having a productive and substantial relationship with the EU."
"We are prepared to work for that," he added, acknowledging that there was work to be done to tackle drug trafficking, among other issues.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said democratic developments there must be encouraged.
Any further delay in extending a hand to Belarus could mean "we... forego a possibility to have political leverage," she said.
Belarus "is faced with a historic choice. Either it takes the necessary steps towards democracy and independence, or it resigns itself to stagnation," the EU commissioner added.
Opposition members in Belarus reacted to the news by urging Lukashenko to institute democratic reforms.
The European Union "made a move and the ball is now in Lukashenko`s court", the vice president of the Popular Front, Viktor Ivashkevich, told AFP.
The EU ministers stressed the improvements made by the regime despite legislative elections in Belarus last month which Western observers slammed as non-democratic.
"I think that the European report on the elections expressed some pretty clear concerns," said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
"But equally it is also important that we continue to recognise the steps that have been made, limited in some ways but not insignificant in others."
On the plus side was the fact the Belarus government has recently freed its remaining political prisoners and invited the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to observe the legislative elections.
Loyalists of the autocratic Lukashenko won every seat in September`s parliamentary polls which were also widely condemned by the US government and Western observers.