BRUSSELS -- All the members of the European Union agree on one thing: the bloc wants a better relationship with Belarus.
And that is what the EU will keep trying for, according to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country current holds the EU chair, after a grueling series of discussions last week that culminated in the March 16 foreign ministers' debate in Brussels.
"We agreed that the European Union must continue its engagement and the support of positive developments in Belarus," Schwarzenberg said.
The decision made is complex. On one hand, it extends an existing travel ban and asset freeze on 41 top Belarusian politicians and officials for another year. On the other, it extends for nine months the suspension of the same travel ban, which is already in force.
Instituted in 2006, the ban was temporarily lifted in October 2008 for most of the 41 figures, except the chairwoman of the Central Election Commission and a handful of officials suspected of personal involvement in disappearances of opposition figures in 1999 and 2000.
Skeptics vs. Dialogue
At stake are not the travel rights of Belarus's political elite, but the future of the EU's "Ostpolitik." As the bloc mulls how far it should go in encouraging Belarus to embrace its ties with the West, it must also consider the potential dangers in alienating Minsk if it does not go far enough.
On this point, views differ widely within the EU. There are two broad groups -- those who believe further engagement and dialogue are the only way to go, unless there is a drastic reverse by Minsk, and those who feel at least some conditionality is essential for further shows of EU goodwill to take place.
Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg aligns himself with the former camp, arguing that what amounts essentially to a show of leniency by the bloc will lead to an improved rights situation in Belarus.
"We strongly believe that this decision will encourage measures to strengthen measures towards democracy, respect for human rights, and fundamental freedoms in Belarus," he said.
Others differed -- none more strongly than Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhaegen, who argued that the reforms undertaken by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka are no more than window dressing.
The Netherlands wants the upcoming EU summit on March 19-20 to set out a list of clear conditions Belarus must meet before it can join the Eastern Partnership initiative, which will be unveiled at the same meeting.
This is the heart of the issue for most EU members. The Eastern Partnership -- which holds out the promise of eventual free trade, open borders, more funding, and legal approximation -- is the EU's highest-profile overture thus far to countries in the former Soviet east.
The bloc hopes to host the leaders of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Prague at a joint summit on May 7 to formally launch the project.
Belarus's constructive participation is essential for the credibility of the Eastern Partnership, if only because it has been publicly vaunted by the bloc's leaders as an alternative to Russian influence in the post-Soviet space.
Price Of Engagement
One group of countries, led by Britain, Sweden and Poland, and the Baltic states, is naturally sympathetic to the Dutch concerns. But these countries also believe that the Russian factor means the stakes are high enough for the EU to justify a continued partial suspension of its standards in a bid to engage the Belarusian leadership.
Speaking to journalists ahead of the March 16 meeting, the bloc's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said there has been progress on the Belarus issue. She highlighted Minsk's recent willingness to talk with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) about electoral reform, enhanced debate with civil society representatives, and the fact that two opposition newspapers have been granted free circulation.
But she also noted that five activists have recently been arrested on what appear to be political grounds. Some young activists have been conscripted into the Belarusian armed forces. Ferrero-Waldner said Minsk should do more to lift restrictions on domestic and foreign media and nongovernmental organizations.
A declaration adopted by the EU foreign ministers also says recent cases of human rights violations have caused "concerns" within the EU that must be addressed.
But countries concerned with Belarus's rights record acknowledge that an uncompromising EU has little to gain in the present situation, with Russia working intensively to maintain its grip on its ex-Soviet neighbors.
Explaining the thinking of this group of countries, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet says sanctions, even if justified, would yield few gains for the EU.
"Because what's the alternative? It's clear Russia is today putting massive pressure on Belarus, to get it to recognize [the breakaway Georgian regions of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for one thing," Paet says
"And the steps taken by the Belarusian leadership [that is, concessions to the EU] are liable to be motivated largely by a desire to avoid falling completely under Russia's sway."
This calculation was sufficient for Britain, Sweden, Poland, and their backers to find common ground with another camp of mostly Western European countries led by Germany and France. Keen to establish the EU as an autonomous regional and global player, these countries have somewhat contradictory motives. Russia is certainly seen as a competitor, but the driving force for most in seeking dialogue with regimes like Minsk is a pragmatic preference for interests over values and a deep-seated skepticism for the utility of sanctions in this context.
Here, Uzbekistan provides something of a blueprint: At the insistence of Germany and France, most sanctions on Tashkent were dropped on the same date, October 13, 2008, as the suspension of the travel ban on top Belarusian officials entered into force.
What Minsk makes of the EU's outstretched hand remains anyone's guess. The bloc's officials have little or no direct contact with their counterparts in Minsk and Lukashenka's motives are a matter of guesswork in Brussels.
A path-breaking visit to Minsk on February 18-19 by the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, was followed by a snub to External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner, who was forced to call off a long-scheduled visit on March 12-13 when it emerged Lukashenka would not be in the country to welcome her.