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EU Set To Drop Most Sanctions On Belarus For Good

Belarusian President Alyaksandar Lukashenka's administration has won praise from the West for releasing political prisoners and hosting peace talks over Ukraine.
Belarusian President Alyaksandar Lukashenka's administration has won praise from the West for releasing political prisoners and hosting peace talks over Ukraine.

BRUSSELS -- EU foreign ministers are poised to allow most of the bloc's sanctions against Belarus to expire when they meet next week in Brussels, diplomatic sources have told RFE/RL, but an arms embargo will apparently remain in place.

The move would further a recent thaw that resulted in a four-month suspension in October of measures that in some cases date back as far as 2004 and were aimed at punishing Minsk for disappearances, political persecution, and democratic shortcomings.

Belarusian President Alyaksandar Lukashenka's administration won praise from the West with its release in August of political prisoners and its role in hosting international talks on ending the fighting in eastern Ukraine, but critics warn a that letup would be premature and Western pressure must continue on Minsk to force democratic reforms and greater respect for human rights and free speech.

Lukashenka has ruled post-Soviet Belarus with an iron fist for two decades but has occasionally signaled a desire to cooperate more closely with the West despite Minsk's historical ties to Moscow.

The asset freezes and visa bans in question target 170 Belarusians, including Lukashenka and close supporters, judges and prosecutors, and three companies. Most were imposed in response to an official crackdown against Belarus's opposition following a flawed presidential election in 2010.

When the EU ministers meet on 15 February, the sources said, they are likely to agree that the dozens of individuals and the blacklisted companies be removed from the list permanently by the end of the month.

But four individuals who are thought to have been responsible for the disappearance of four opposition figures in 2000 will remain under sanctions.

The arms embargo on the country is expected to be extended. Sources said other members opposed an effort by Hungary -- which has itself come in for criticism over perceived backsliding on media and other freedoms -- to receive an exemption in order to export sports and hunting rifles to Belarus.

'Proactive Participation'

On February 15, the 28 foreign ministers are also set to adopt EU Council conclusions on Belarus. The document, seen by RFE/RL, hails the "proactive participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership," the start of negotiations on a visa-facilitation agreement between Brussels and Minsk, and the resumption of the EU-Belarus human rights dialogue.

The document hints that more cooperation is afoot, noting that the council has decided to "accelerate the implementation of measures aimed at enhancing EU-Belarus cooperation in a number of economic, trade, and assistance related fields, with the goal of modernizing Belarus and its economy for the benefit of the Belarusian population, including in view of WTO [World Trade Organization] accession and in cooperation with International Financial Institutions, in particular the EIB [European Investment Bank] and the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] in line with their respective mandates."

Despite the generally positive tone of the conclusions, the council remains critical of the human rights situation in Belarus. It condemns the death penalty and "urges the Belarusian authorities to set up a moratorium as a first step towards its abolition."

The document also calls for the "reinstatement of the civil and political rights of former political prisoners and highlights the need to ensure freedom of association and assembly, including by allowing the registration of political and civil society organizations."

Brussels urges Belarusian authorities to "allow civil society to be more involved in the discussions on government policy" and to "eliminate all obstacles to the exercise of a free and independent media , including through the registration of new media outlets and the accreditation of journalists."

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is mentioned in the text, with the document merely noting that "the Council reaffirms that good neighborly relations and regional cooperation are important elements for enhancing EU-Belarus cooperation."

Lukashenka has played a high-profile role in hosting crisis talks between France, Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and representatives of Russian-backed separatists who control swaths of eastern Ukraine.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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