BRUSSELS -- The European Union and the United States have suspended most sanctions against Belarus, citing "improving relations" and the release of several activists that Brussels and Washington considered political prisoners.
The EU said in a statement on October 29 that ambassadors are expected to suspend asset freezes and visa bans on 170 out of 174 blacklisted Belarusians and also remove restrictive measures against the 14 companies.
"This decision was taken in response to the release of all Belarusian political prisoners on 22 August and in the context of improving EU-Belarus relations," the ЕU said.
Sanctions will remain in place for four people involved in "unresolved disappearances in Belarus" in 1999-2000. An arms embargo will also remain in place.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was also lifting sanctions against nine entities, though it wasn't immediately clear which individuals and companies the decision would apply to.
“This limited reprieve from sanctions opens the door to expanded commercial ties for the Belarusian economy and we encourage the government of Belarus to take additional positive steps to improve its record with regards to human rights and democracy,“ spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Mikalay Statkevich was among the opposition figures released from prison in August.
The decision was welcomed in Minsk.
"We expect that this decision will lead to a swift and actual cancellation of all the sanctions and a normalization of the relations between Belarus and the European Union,” Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dzmitry Mironchik said. “This meets the interests of all the parties."
Belarus has been ruled since 1994 by Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who won a fifth term earlier this month in an election that was judged by Western monitors to be neither free nor fair.
The EU had long demanded that Lukashenka release the political prisoners as a precondition for the easing of sanctions.
It is, however, possible that the sanctions will be lifted altogether next March as all 28 EU member states must agree to prolong them, something EU sources told RFE/RL is currently unlikely.
"The EU has reacted to this progress, encouraging further positive developments that would lead to an improvement of EU-Belarus relations," the statement said. The EU will "continue to closely monitor the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus."
The sanctions were first imposed in the wake of the crackdown that followed the previous presidential election in December 2010. But relations between Brussels and Minsk have improved considerably this year.
In August, the Lukashenka government released six opposition politicians, including Mikalay Statkevich, who ran against Lukashenka in the 2010 vote and was later jailed.
The two sides are also in the final stages of agreeing to a visa-facilitation deal which would make it easier and cheaper for Belarusians to travel to the EU's Schengen zone.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP