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Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (file photo)

BRUSSELS -- Thirty-five members of the European Parliament have criticized the European Union’s position toward Belarus in a letter, saying that the bloc's relationship with Minsk is centered on economic cooperation, trade, and assistance instead of being focused on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

The March 21 letter, seen by RFE/RL, was addressed to Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, and Johannes Hahn, the bloc's representative for neighborhood policy.

“We wish to reiterate our concern that the EU-Belarus relations, as they are being currently developed, tend to be increasingly dominated by questions of economy, trade, and assistance. We remain confident that EU-Belarus relations must continue to be based, first and foremost, on respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law," the letter says.

The EU introduced sanctions on four Belarusian companies and 174 individuals, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, after a violent crackdown on demonstrators that followed the December 2010 presidential election.

In February 2016, the bloc's foreign ministers removed the companies and 170 of individuals from the list, including Lukashenka, citing what it said were improvements in the human rights situation in the ex-Soviet republic.

At the same time, the EU also allowed enhanced cooperation between Minsk and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB), and abolished textile quotas.

The letter notes that "in spite of meaningful steps of goodwill and openness demonstrated by the EU side, the situation with regard to basic human rights and democracy in Belarus is far from showing signs of any tangible progress and change."

Belarusian authorities continue to detain two political prisoners, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka, and “not a single previously released political prisoner has been ever rehabilitated,” the lawmakers say in their letter.

“Over the recent months, judicial and other kinds of harassment were used against independent journalists with foreign accreditation, such as Belsat TV. Also, two leading independent internet portals, Charter 97 and Belarusian Partisan, experienced restrictions and blocking from the Ministry of Information,” the lawmakers said.

The German Marshall Fund is a U.S.-based think tank, which does not have offices or staff in Russia. (file photo)

Russia’s government has added the German Marshall Fund of the United States to its list of foreign entities whose activities are deemed "undesirable" in the country.

"The Russian Justice Ministry has added the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) to the list of foreign and international nongovernmental organizations, whose operation has been recognized as undesirable on Russian territory," the ministry said on March 21.

It did not specify why the U.S.-based think tank, which does not have offices or staff in Russia, had been added to the list.

The ministry issued its standard statement when barring organizations that referred to "measures against individuals involved in the violation of basic human rights and freedoms" and on a decision by a deputy prosecutor-general.

The German Marshall Fund said it had "not received any formal notification regarding this announcement."

"GMF’s work to strengthen transatlantic relations in support of the values of democracy, human rights, and rule of law will continue unabated," said the organization, which is based in Washington and has several offices in Europe.

Under a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2015 and widely criticized by rights groups, the government can brand foreign and international groups "undesirable organizations."

The legislation, which critics say is designed to prevent NGOs from promoting democratic institutions in Russia, enables the government to ban the organizations and launch criminal proceedings against Russian groups that work with them.

The Justice Ministry's list now names 14 "undesirable" organizations, including Open Russia, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Open Society Foundation, and the U.S. Russia Foundation for Economic Advancement and the Rule of Law.

Days ahead of Russia's March 18 presidential vote, the ministry blacklisted two European organizations involved in election monitoring -- Germany's European Platform for Democratic Elections and Lithuania's International Elections Study Center.

With reporting by Reuters and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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