BRUSSELS -- A leading Belarusian opposition activist says the European Union must continue to pressure the ex-Soviet country's authoritarian president over his record on human rights and civil liberties despite a thaw between Minsk and Brussels.
Ales Byalyatski, who spent nearly three years in prison following a tax-evasion conviction his supporters call politically motivated, said in a February 3 interview that he hopes the current rapprochement between the EU and the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka will yield more than lip service.
"We expect from the European Union political pressure on Belarusian authorities with the aim of finally expanding the space for democracy and human rights in Belarus," he told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
Byalyatski and Belarusian media freedom activist Zhanna Litvina spoke to RFE/RL in Brussels, where they were lobbying EU officials ahead of the bloc's upcoming decision whether to lift sanctions against Minsk.
In late October, the EU temporarily suspended its sanctions against 170 Belarusian officials and three companies it had introduced several years ago in the wake of a crackdown against democratic and civil institutions in Belarus.
That suspension is set to expire on February 29, after which the sanctions could be lifted altogether. All 28 EU member states would have to agree to prolong the sanctions in order to keep them in place.
The independent Belarusian news agency Belapan quoted a spokesperson for the EU's Foreign Affairs Council as saying that foreign ministers would discuss Belarus on February 15.
In suspending the sanctions in October, the EU said the move was made in response to the release of "all Belarusian political prisoners" on August 22 and "in the context of improving EU-Belarus relations," adding that it will "continue to closely monitor the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus."
Byalyatski, who was honored by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with its annual Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2013, said the united view of Belarusian rights groups was that since Lukashenka's release of the prisoners, "no other changes in Belarus are happening."
"We are only hearing beautiful words from Belarusian diplomats about their readiness for cooperation [with the West]," he said. "Indeed, they have finally started communicating with European officials. Nevertheless, we are witnessing no actions in Belarus itself to improve the standing of democracy."
Litvina said there had been no improvements in press freedoms, and that the situation could only improve if the government relaxed its monopoly on the media.
Lukashenka has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994 and won a fifth term in October in an election that Western monitors determined was neither free nor fair. He has repeatedly dismissed international criticism of his authoritarian rule and his government's rights record.
Litvina said EU officials should also pay close attention to the country's parliamentary elections in September. She called the vote a chance for the Belarusian government and the entire society to hold a real campaign for change according to generally accepted rules of conduct.
"Belarus needs to reject the very principle of vote fixing for the benefit of one person or a number of people. Democratic principles and mechanisms need to be put to work in Belarus," she said.
Lukashenka's role in facilitating the February 2015 deal in Minsk to bring a cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has also improved his government's relations with the West.
Lukashenka has rebuffed Russian pressure to recognize Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, a land grab that triggered waves of Western sanctions against Moscow.
Byalyatski said, however, that this was a small departure from Lukashenka's Moscow-oriented foreign policy during his 22-year reign.
The Belarusian president is "at the very core a post-Soviet dictator," Byalyatski said, who feels "more at home in the dictators club" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and "all those Central Asian tsars."
"European democratic society is completely alien to him," he said. "For someone who has spent 22 years watching the outside world through the glass of his presidential limo, it is probably very hard for him to understand what democracy is really all about."