BRUSSELS -- Belarus has received another slap on the wrist -- but no more for the time being -- for its crackdown on independent leaders of its Polish minority.
The issue was raised by Poland, which, diplomats said, used today's meeting of EU foreign ministers to brief other governments about its concerns. There followed a very brief discussion after which the EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, was mandated to issue a brief and measured statement to reporters in Brussels.
"We are concerned about the police action against the Union of Poles in Belarus and their chairwoman, Andzelika Borys. These developments constitute a setback in our relationship” with the Belarusian authorities, Ashton said.
Ashton noted that the EU has demonstrated "considerable openness" in its dealings with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's authoritarian regime so far, especially by inviting Belarus last year to join the Eastern Partnership program.
The high representative said she is hoping to raise the issue with Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhei Martynau at the inauguration of Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yanukovych, in Kyiv on February 25.
Ashton said EU sanctions were not discussed at this juncture -- although EU diplomats say Poland has suggested Belarus be denied funding available to it under the Eastern Partnership.
Ahead of the meeting today, Poland had sent a letter to other EU governments saying Belarus's commitment to improving ties with the bloc may not be "genuine."
Warsaw has reacted with alarm to the arrests of a number of Polish activists over the past weeks and authorities’ seizure of a building used by the Union of Poles in Belarus.
Ashton said EU foreign ministers would revisit the situation in March.
Reaching Out To Kyiv
On Ukraine, the EU today issued a statement expressing the bloc's wish to "deepen and strengthen" relations with Kyiv.
Ashton, who said she would be attending president-elect Yanukovych's swearing-in ceremony in Kyiv on February 25, made it clear today the EU supports his administration.
"We're looking very much forward to working with the new leadership and we stand ready to continue our support for the Ukraine on its path to reform and stability," Ashton said.
Ashton underscored a number of "important challenges" which Ukraine faces. First, the country needs to come to an understanding with the International Monetary Fund over a standby loan, which involves a commitment to a series of painful reforms by Kyiv. A further $6 billion of EU aid is also dependent on that agreement.
The EU today also stressed the importance of preserving political stability in Ukraine, including by means of constitutional reforms.
On Moldova, the ministers adopted a declaration on the breakaway region of Transdniester, which regrets the continued absence of a political settlement to the conflict between Chisinau and Tiraspol.
The EU extended for another 12 months its visa ban against a number of Transdniester leaders while simultaneously suspending it until the end of September. The names of three individuals were removed from the sanctions list today.
The EU ministers came under intense media pressure today over allegations that the hit squad which killed the Palestinian militant Mahmud al-Mabhuh in Dubai last month using fake EU passports may have worked for Israel.
After the meeting, Ashton read out an EU statement which condemned the killing and the use of stolen EU documents -- without, however, mentioning Israel by name.
"The killing of Mahmud al-Mabhuh in Dubai on the 20th of January raises issues which are profoundly disturbing to the European Union," the statement said. “This was an action which cannot be conducive to peace and stability in the Middle East. The EU strongly condemns the fact that those involved in this action have used fraudulent EU member states' passports and credit cards acquired through the theft of EU citizens' identities."
Lieberman issued a statement saying there was no proof that Israel was behind the killing. Later, he told reporters, "I think you have all seen too many James Bond movies."
The British and Irish foreign ministers today met their Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, in Brussels. Ashton said she would be raising the EU's concerns over dinner later tonight.
The EU member states involved -- France and Germany apart from Britain and Ireland -- have launched their own investigations.
On Iran, the EU today again condemned Tehran's rejection of an international compromise offer to move the enrichment of uranium out of the country and reiterated its readiness to apply further sanctions.
The ministers also expressed the hope for a swift end to the standoff between Libya and Switzerland. The diplomatic row has seen the Libya close its borders to citizens of countries belonging to Europe's passport-free Schengen zone, of which Switzerland is also a member.