BRUSSELS -- Politicians in Brussels are openly talking of a "shift" in EU policy toward Belarus.
Despite the repeated failure of Belarusian authorities to hold democratic elections, last demonstrated on September 28, the EU is set to abandon its long-standing drive to isolate Minsk and is seeking dialogue.
The chairman of the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, said the EU "must counteract Russian influence" in the country.
The need to do this was impressed on EU politicians across the board by Russia's invasion of Georgia in August.
The change in EU policy has the backing of top leaders of Belarus's democratic opposition. Speaking at the European Parliament on October 8, Alyaksandr Milinkevich said securing the country's independence from Russia takes precedence over all other objectives. Dialogue, he said, is the only way to ensure this goal:
"For me, there is no alternative to the policy of dialogue," he said. "Because to say [there is] a dictator [in charge of] Belarus, to build a Berlin Wall, [avoid] all contact with him, then we will lose not only all
opportunity to influence the state of affairs, but will also sharply worsen the situation of the people in Belarus -- and 10 million Europeans live there."
Milinkevich said measures aimed at democratization must continue, even if their chance of success remains slim.
Milinkevich and fellow opposition leader and erstwhile political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin also met with Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra and were later due to hold talks with French Europe Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet. France is the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency, to be succeeded by the Czech Republic in January 2009.
The European Parliament is set to vote on a nonbinding resolution on Belarus, unanimously backed by all political factions. One of the authors of the resolution, Polish deputy Jacek Protasiewicz, said it carefully balances praise with criticism.
"The first paragraph, which was deliberately chosen by all political groups [in the European Parliament] to be the first, [provides] a positive assessment of the decision that has been taken by Belarusian authorities concerning the [release] of [all] political prisoners," Protasiewicz said.
"But the second paragraph is a sincere [expression] of our regret that another opportunity for [improving] the political situation in Belarus was missed" by the failure to hold democratic elections, he added.
This is also the pattern the European Parliament recommends for EU policy, which might be described as a carrot-and-stick approach.
Key passages in the draft resolution call on the EU to selectively lift some of the visa bans currently in effect against about 40 Belarusian officials. However, deputies and Belarusian opposition leaders alike said officials guilty of human rights violations must not benefit from
Crucially, Kazulin and Milinkevich said the EU travel ban on Lukashenka must remain.
The parliament also wants the EU to earmark some of its 2009 Neighborhood Policy budget for Belarus. So far, Brussels has barred Belarus from participation in the policy, citing human rights violations and the lack of democracy.
Polish deputies in the European Parliament are also working behind the scenes to bring down the cost of an EU Schengen visa for Belarusian citizens, currently set at 60 euros ($82). Saryusz-Wolski said he has secured assurances to that effect from the European Commission:
The Belarusian opposition leaders also underscored the discrepancy with Russia, whose citizens benefit from a visa-facilitation deal with the EU and pay 35 euros for a Schengen visa.