EU foreign ministers have voted to abandon a handful of sanctions against Belarus over its rights and democracy record and adopted an EU Council text praising mutual cooperation, furthering a thaw that critics fear will let the authoritarian regime in Minsk off the hook too quickly.
The 28 ministers agreed that 170 Belarusians, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and senior officials, along with three blacklisted Belarusian companies should be permanently removed from the EU list of those facing asset freezes and visa bans.
Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Dzmitry Mironchik described the EU decision as "an important stage toward full normalization of our relations," saying it "opens up new opportunities for a broader, diverse cooperation" between Belarus and the EU.
The lifting of the measures goes into effect on March 1.
EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said the EU had seen a "positive trend" from Belarus.
"We have agreed by the fact that we have seen over the last couple of years some steps that are encouraging and that is what we want to try and support and encourage further, which means that the way is still long ahead of us, especially ahead of the authorities [in Belarus]," she said in Brussels.
But she maintained that the situation in Belarus was not a "rosy or a perfect picture," insisting the bloc would maintain a policy of "critical engagement" with Minsk.
As expected, the EU left an arms embargo in place and extended for another year sanctions targeting four Belarusian officials suspected of involvement in opposition disappearances more than a decade ago.
The sanctions were set to expire at the end of this month, following a four-month suspension in October.
Most were imposed in response to an official crackdown against the opposition following a flawed presidential election in 2010, but some date back as far as 2004.
Speaking outside the EU ministers meeting in Brussels, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius insisted that the move did not mean that EU "expectations and requirements" toward the Belarusian authorities will be "lowered."
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom acknowledged to journalists in the EU capital that "the situation of human rights and democracy has not improved."
"But we also think that sanctions need to be one element of what our relation to Belarus should be and how we are going to work with Belarus as a partner," Wallstrom said.
"So now we have a compromise on the table according to which we" -- the European Union -- "should keep some sanctions and discuss a broader strategic position on Belarus."
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski called the partial lifting of the sanctions an "experiment."
"As a neighbor [of Belarus], we are satisfied because we hope that it will improve our neighborly relations," Waszczykowski said, adding that he plans to travel to Belarus and see whether the country "is determined to cooperate with the European Union and -- above all -- with Poland."
Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makey said on February 9 that "sanctions are not a good method to develop cooperation and interstate relations."
"We are ready to move along our part of the way in the framework of EU's expectations," state-controlled news agency Belta quoted Makey as saying. "We are interested in looking for common ground through dialogue and moving on to normal cooperation."
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was once dubbed by the United States Europe's last "dictator," and his administration routinely jails dissenters and stifles public criticism.
Belarus has won recent praise from the West with its release in August of political prisoners and its role in international talks to halt fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Former Belarusian political prisoner Ales Byalyatski is among those who have urged European leaders to maintain pressure on Minsk, saying that the situation inside the former Soviet republic has not improved.
Lukashenka has ruled post-Soviet Belarus with an iron fist for two decades and won a fifth term in October in an election that Western monitors determined was neither free nor fair.
He has lately shown a willingness to resist falling automatically in line with Moscow, declining to recognize the independence of breakaway Georgian territories allied with the Kremlin or acknowledge Russia's annexation of Crimea, seized from Ukraine in early 2014.
Also on February 15, the EU foreign ministers adopted EU Council conclusions on Belarus that noted "proactive" cooperation and engagement on visa and human-rights issues.
The text hints at an acceleration of efforts to boost economic and other cooperation but 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."
It also urges the Belarusian government to "set up a moratorium [on the death penalty] as a first step towards its abolition."