The European Union has taken a step toward temporarily suspending sanctions against Belarus despite concerns about the October 11 presidential election.
France’s Secretary of State for European Affairs, Harlem Desir, said EU foreign ministers on October 12 had made a provisional commitment for a four-month lifting of sanctions beginning in January after an election that took place "in the most transparent and calm way possible."
Speaking at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, Desir said the suspension of sanctions would "allow us at any moment, if we see there is a step back, to reestablish the sanctions."
EU sources later said that while there was political consensus on suspending the sanctions among the 28 member states, there had not been a formal agreement. They said that agreement is expected later in October before the sanctions expire on October 31.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier highlighted positive developments in Belarus, such as the release of political prisoners.
But Steinmeier said the "elections naturally do not meet the international standards that we set ourselves."
International observers have criticized the election that prolonged Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's rule, saying that the country failed to uphold its democratic commitments and voicing concerns over the vote count.
Belarusian electoral officials say Lukashenka, in power since 1994, won a new five-year term with more than 83 percent of the votes cast in an election dismissed by political opponents as a farce.
"It is clear that Belarus still has a long way to go towards fulfilling its democratic commitments," Kent Harstedt, chairman of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said on October 12.
"The recent release of political prisoners and a welcoming approach to observers were positive developments," Harstedt said. "However, the hope that this gave us for broader electoral progress was largely unfulfilled."
Despite improvements, Belarusian authorities created "an uneven playing field for campaigning" on which the line between Lukashenka's candidacy and the interests of the state was blurred, Harstedt said.
He expressed particular disappointment over what he said were shortcomings during the counting and tabulation of votes.
Jim Walsh, head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly delegation, praised Belarusian authorities for their role in facilitating talks aimed at ending the war between the government and Russia-backed rebels in neighboring Ukraine, which has helped Lukashenka improve his image abroad.
But Walsh said that more reforms were needed to challenge shortcomings in the Belarusian electoral process.
"I welcome Belarus’s recent constructive role facilitating dialogue over Ukraine. In this regard, greater international focus on this election is inevitable, and this opportunity has not been fully embraced," he said.
The observers' statements came after Germany’s foreign minister said he and colleagues from other EU countries would discuss "the conditions and time frame" for easing sanctions against Belarus, which pleased the West by releasing several foes of Lukashenka from prison ahead of the election.
Over 80 Percent Of Vote
Citing preliminary results, the former Soviet republic’s Central Election Commission (CEC) said on October 12 that Lukashenka, 61, had received just fewer than 83.5 percent of the votes.
It said that Tatsyana Karatkevich, a relatively obscure candidate representing the opposition movement Havary Pravdu (Tell the Truth), came in second with 4.42 percent.
The other two candidates, both from pro-government parties, received fewer votes. They congratulated Lukashenka before any official results were announced.
Around 6.5 percent voted against all four candidates on the ballot, according to the CEC, which said turnout was 86.7 percent. Many polling stations were decked out with tables filled with snacks and alcohol, echoing a Soviet-era tradition of election-day festivities.
The result was apparently in line with the expectations of Lukashenka, who has muzzled the media and systematically clamped down on dissent since his first election in 1994.
He said on October 11 that it would be a bad sign if he received fewer votes than in the last election, in 2010, when he officially won 79.65 percent of the vote in a ballot that spawned opposition protests that were violently suppressed by the authorities.
This year, hundreds of opposition supporters staged an unsanctioned protest rally in the capital, Minsk, on October 10, urging Belarusians not to vote.
WATCH: Opposition activists took to the streets of Minsk after elections in Belarus gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka another five-year term of office.
Speaking at the rally on the central Freedom Square, opposition leaders Mikalay Statkevich and Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu denounced the election, saying its result has already been fixed.
After the polls closed, some 200 activists demonstrated in central Minsk, carrying banners decrying Lukashenka’s "dictatorship."
There was no sign of the kind of violent police crackdown on protesters that followed the 2010 reelection of Lukashenka, a wily politician whose iron-fisted longevity in office has earned him the moniker “Europe’s last dictator.”
The CEC said on October 10 that 36 percent of the 7 million registered voters had cast their ballots ahead of election day. Opposition representatives say pressure had been put on civil servants, hospital patients, and students to vote early.
Aleh Hulak, Chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Group, told reporters in Minsk on October 12 that although there were some positive changes in election campaign in comparison with previous years, there were problems and violations during the poll.
Hulak said that the vote-counting process was not transparent, as only a quarter of independent observers were able to fully attend the counting process.
Valyantsin Stefanovich, Deputy Chairman of Minsk-based Vyasna (Spring) Human Rights Center, told journalists that the candidates did not have equal opportunities for election campaign in terms of their presence in electronic media.
21 Years In Power
Aside from 1994, Lukashenka has never received less than 75 percent of the vote in a presidential election. He has prolonged his power in elections that opponents and international observers as marred by with violations and skewed by the influence Lukashenka holds on state institutions and uneven coverage in the state media.
Lukashenka, who cast his ballot together with his 11-year-old son Kolya, warned opposition leaders not violate the law.
The EU slapped sanctions on 201 individuals and 18 companies in Belarus over repressions that followed the 2010 vote, including the jailing of Statkevich and other opposition candidates.
Statkevich and other opposition figures were released from prison in late August, part of a series of measures widely seen as an effort by Lukashenka to improve ties with the West at a time of tension in his relationship with Russia.
Russia and Belarus have close ties and are partners in the Eurasian Economic Union, a grouping that links ex-Soviet states and is seen as a rival of the EU, but they have often sparred over economic issues and their relationship has been strained by Russia’s interference in Ukraine, which has made Minsk wary and bolstered Lukashenka’s efforts to mend fences with the West.
The European Union had signaled it would suspend the sanctions on close to 140 Belarusians, including Lukashenka himself, if there was no political crackdown during the election.