The European Union's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, visited Minsk on June 22 for talks with Belarusian officials including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau.
Ferrero-Waldner described the talks as a "good start and a milestone in relations" between Belarus and the EU. She said she had "discussed the possibility of the EU providing macroeconomic assistance to Belarus, as well as assistance in terms of Europe's financial institutions. We will now await positive steps from Belarus."
She had been expected to offer a 10-million-euro aid package to improve food safety standards in the wake of Minsk's "milk war" with Russia, with the proviso that Belarus to step up democratic reforms and release political prisoners.
Lukashenka told Ferrero-Waldner: "It is our sincere wish, though some might not like it, to build good relations with the EU."
The trip came amid an apparent thaw in Belarus's relations with the West, and less than two months after the country joined five other post-Soviet republics in the EU's Eastern Partnership initiative.
Ahead of her visit, RFE/RL's Belarus Service solicited questions from listeners to put to Ferrero-Waldner in an online interview.
Question: News agencies have quoted you as saying that President Lukashenka asked you to come to Minsk as soon as possible. But in March, he forced you to cancel a scheduled visit to Belarus at the last minute by flying to Armenia. Why do you think he's in such a rush now?
Benita Ferrero-Waldner: When my visit to Belarus needed to be rescheduled, President Lukashenka and I agreed to postpone it to a date when he and other high-ranking representatives of the Belarusian government would be in Minsk. Given my very busy schedule, you can imagine that finding a convenient date to suit everyone was quite a challenge, but I'm pleased that we finally managed, and I'm looking forward to my visit.
Q: President Lukashenka revealed in a recent interview with Russian media that he asked EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana in February if the EU was prepared to "replace Russia" as Belarus's financial patron, and help with subsidies, low energy prices, and the like. Solana, according to the Belarusian president, said no. Since then, Belarus's relations with Russia have become more and more tense. If Lukashenka asks you now what the EU can do for Belarus, what will you say?
Ferrero-Waldner: I will reiterate what I have said on numerous occasions: the EU has plenty to offer Belarus. Provided that Belarus decides to continue along the reform path toward more democracy and respect for human rights and to embrace greater openness, the EU is prepared to respond positively and help Belarus wherever possible.
All the benefits that our European Neighborhood Policy and Eastern Partnership have to offer can obviously also be made available to Belarus. However, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight that the EU does not play zero-sum games, and it is not about choosing one country over another. This is not the way we work, as we believe in keeping the channels of dialogue open with all our partners. So it will never be a matter of either Russia or the EU. Belarus needs good relations with both.
Question: What political reforms should Belarus make to show that it is on the right track and fits into the Eastern Partnership plan?
Ferrero-Waldner: Over the past year, we've seen some progress in Belarus, such as the release of the political prisoners, consultations between Belarus and the [OSCE's election-monitoring arm] ODIHR on electoral reform, two independent newspapers ("Narodnaya volya" and "Nasha Niva") are back in the kiosks, and the first meeting of civil society and opposition to discuss future developments in Belarus.
These are very positive steps, but let us be clear. Much more needs still to be done, and Belarus has a long way to go. We want to see more progress in many fields, such as the full respect of media freedom, the registration of NGOs needs to be made easier and their working conditions improved, civil society should be able to demonstrate without fear of harassment or arrest, and Belarus also has to ensure that there are no more political prisoners. It remains our sincere wish to welcome Belarus as a full partner in our European Neighborhood Policy and our Eastern Partnership, so we naturally stand ready -- where we can -- to support Belarus in undertaking all necessary reforms.
Question: Many Belarusian opposition activists are disappointed by the fact that the EU has restarted official relations with the Belarusian regime within the Eastern Partnership framework without waiting for any significant improvements in the human rights situation or any significant progress toward democracy in the country. Do you envision some role for the Belarusian opposition within the Eastern Partnership initiative?
Ferrero-Waldner: As I just mentioned, Belarus has taken some positive steps over the last year, and in this context I also welcome the positive response by the government to our proposal to initiate a human rights dialogue -- the first meeting just took place.
We are, however, aware that the picture in Belarus is far from perfect, but I sincerely believe that engagement with the country is the best way forward. So we have invited Belarus to take part in the multilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership. But let's be clear: participation on a bilateral track can only come when Belarus has convincingly demonstrated its commitment to progress on democracy and fundamental freedoms.
The Eastern Partnership initiative could support the country enormously to step out of its isolation. The multilateral dimension of the Eastern Partnership will offer Belarus the opportunity to deepen its relations with partners in the region in a number of areas. There are four thematic platforms in which Belarus will participate, and in particular one on democracy, good government, and stability.
The Eastern Partnership will create a new civil society forum which will provide an open channel for the permanent inclusion of civil society expertise and views in the Eastern Partnership process. The Belarusian opposition actively participated in the Prague conference on civil society on the eve of the Eastern Partnership summit on the seventh of May.
Question: Belarusians pay 60 euros for Schengen visas, while Russians and Ukrainians are charged just 35 euros. Who's to blame for this situation -- Brussels or Minsk? And what are the EU's conditions for lowering the visa costs for Belarusians?
Ferrero-Waldner: No one is to blame for this. The fact is simply that we have so-called visa facilitation and readmission agreements with Ukraine and Russia, and we do not have them with Belarus. I appreciate that this is a crucial point for Belarus and its citizens.
If Belarus were to become a full partner in our European Neighborhood Policy -- and therefore also of the bilateral track of the Eastern Partnership -- we could envisage starting negotiations of such agreements. This would obviously be conditional on clear progress towards democratization, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.
Question: A lighter question. If you hear the word "Belarus," what are the first two or three things that come to your mind? Is it Lukashenka, or dictatorship, or something else?
Ferrero-Waldner: Belarus is a country with a very rich history and culture, and vibrant youth. This makes me think first and foremost of the young dynamic future that lies ahead of Belarus.