BRUSSELS -- EU sources say that for the first time, the bloc is ready to welcome Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to its Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit next month.
Sources close to the matter told RFE/RL on October 9 that Belarus was invited to participate in the November 24 summit in Brussels "without restrictions" -- just like the five other EaP members: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The invitations for the event were sent to EaP countries on October 6, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Ahead of the previous four EaP summits, the EU made it clear that Lukashenka, who has ruled Belarus for 23 years and been called the "last dictator of Europe," was not welcome.
Minsk was represented by Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei at the last Eastern Partnership summit, held in Riga in 2015.
The EU launched the Eastern Partnership in 2009 to promote economic integration and European values in the six Eastern European and South Caucasus countries.
Lukashenka, who has been president since 1994, won a fifth term in a 2015 election that was judged by Western monitors to be neither free nor fair.
The EU introduced restrictive measures against the country in 2004 in connection with the unresolved disappearances of two opposition politicians, a businessman, and a journalist.
The European Council adopted further sanctions in the wake of the crackdown that followed the previous presidential election in December 2010.
But in February 2016, the EU lifted most sanctions against the country -- asset freezes and visa bans on 170 Belarusians, including Lukashenka and senior officials, and restrictive measures against 14 companies.
It said the sanctions were lifted "in response to the release of all Belarusian political prisoners on [August 22, 2016] and in the context of improving EU-Belarus relations."