LUXEMBOURG -- European Union foreign ministers have extended an olive branch to Belarus at their meeting in Luxembourg.
They provisionally suspended travel restrictions placed on Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other top officials in 2006. The suspension will be in effect for six months and could be renewed if Belarus demonstrates a commitment to democratic reforms.
A handful of officials held to be personally responsible for electoral fraud and reprisals against members of the opposition will still be banned from traveling in the EU. At the top of the EU's shortened travel blacklist is Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the chairwoman of the Belarusian Central Election Commission. The ruling does not affect the bank accounts of blacklisted officials that were frozen by the EU.
The EU's external relations commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said ahead of the meeting that the EU would send a "positive signal" to Lukashenka, whose regime has long been shunned by the bloc.
Brussels froze political contacts with Minsk to protest what it said were rigged elections that saw Lukashenka reelected to a third term in 2006. Aside from electoral shortcomings, the EU and the United States have linked economic and diplomatic sanctions to Belarus's jailing of opposition politicians and crackdown on free media.
But with the release of its political prisoners, and parliamentary elections approaching, avenues for compromise appeared to be opening. Both Washington and Brussels indicated in the run-up to Belarus's September 28 elections that sanctions could be loosened depending on the poll's outcome and commitment to democracy.
"They've done certain things. They've released all of the political prisoners, but then they delivered a profoundly lousy election, as you know," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt as he arrived for the October 13 talks in Luxembourg.
"They did not really live up to the expectations that we had concerning the election. It was, roughly, as lousy as elections in Belarus normally are."
Ferrero-Waldner held an early meeting with Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau this morning, but said Minsk had not offered any concrete steps toward meeting the EU's demands.
Ferrero-Waldner acknowledged that Russia's incursion into Georgia in August is partially responsible for the EU's intention to reverse the policy of isolation it has pursued with Belarus.
French Europe Minister Jean Pierre Jouyet told the European Parliament last on October 8 that the EU is acting on "geopolitical" considerations in seeking closer links with Minsk.
But Ferrero-Waldner insisted on October 13 that the EU has not lost sight of its values, highlighting recent improvements in Minsk's record.
"At the present time we are facing quite a complex reality," she said. "We were not satisfied with the parliamentary election on September 28, it's true, and the way it was conducted -- because the election did not [measure] up to international standards and our expectations."
The EU commissioner said that the decision by Minsk to free all remaining political prisoners in August was what decided the issue for Brussels.
"The freeing, then, of the remaining political prisoners was regarded, I think, as an essential step not only by ourselves but even by the opposition," Ferrero-Waldner said. "And that is very important, even the opposition said that is very important."
Opposition leaders Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin -- himself one of the last political prisoners to be freed -- told the European Parliament on October 8 they fully supported the EU's change of policy.
Ferrero-Waldner has argued the EU had not had time to react to that move in September, ahead of the elections. That considered, she said the bloc was willing to overlook the electoral shortcomings if it meant improving the EU's standing with Minsk vis-a-vis Moscow.
"And yet, while we did at the time welcome the freeing of the political prisoners, we did not respond tangibly with positive measures. What we did is, we said this was a good step ahead but there was no real concrete measure," Ferrero-Waldner said.
"Therefore, I think, we should not delay our response any longer as I think I fear that we otherwise will forgo the possibility to have political leverage [in Belarus]."
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU was keen to "give something" to the "moderates" in Belarus to encourage democratic reforms.