By Andrew Rettman
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - EU diplomats have made clear to Belarus that its decision to let the European Commission open an office in Minsk will not help the country duck trade or diplomatic sanctions, amid a clumsy pro-EU charm offensive by the isolated dictatorship.
"We told them - do not expect GSP in exchange, it's a totally separate issue," one EU diplomat told EUobserver on Friday (27 April), referring to EU plans to expel Minsk from the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) trade scheme on 21 June, costing Belarus ?340 million a year.
"It [the commission office] is a good step. But they should not take it as a huge breakthrough. If they started to release political prisoners, yes, that would be a big step," he added, on the prospects of the EU relaxing a travel ban on 25 Belarus officials, including its leader, Aleksander Lukashenko.
The remarks come after Belarus last week agreed to start negotiations on the new commission office, over one year after Brussels put in its formal request in 2005. If talks go smoothly, the Minsk delegation could open in late 2007 or early 2008 and host between 20 to 40 EU officials.
The commission outpost would produce reports on the economic and political situation in the country and manage ?5 million a year's worth of EU-funded projects. "You can talk to civil society much better if you are there on the ground," a commission spokeswoman explained.
Lukashenko on Friday said the commission move "is an act of goodwill on our part...in turn, we expect the Europeans to take appropriate measures," Russian newswire Ria Novosti reports.
Delicate talks ahead
His diplomats declined to speculate if the GSP move in June could set back the talks. "I could not predict the pace of the negotiations," one Belarus official told EUobserver. "We expect to continue our dialogue and to normalise relations further in future."
The talks will centre around a so-called "accord de siege," which is to stipulate how many staff the commission can send and what kind of diplomatic immunity they will receive. The commission's agreements with third countries are usually modelled on the UN's 1961 Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.
EU-Belarus relations are far from normal today, despite Minsk's PR push to relax EU sanctions ever since Russia spiked its oil and gas rents in January in a long-standing spat over pipeline ownership and potential future state union.
Every few weeks in the past three months Lukashenko makes a speech saying the time has come to boost relations with Brussels. The last one, to the Belarusian parliament on 24 April talks about being "ready to be an equal partner, a responsible partner" for the EU.
Lukashenko not a credible partner
But his actions make it hard to take the 54-year old, ice hockey-loving dictator seriously: on 26 April his police beat up peaceful protestors on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster; on 25 March police beat up peaceful protestors on the country's independence day.
In the meantime, young pro-democracy campaigners keep getting thrown in and out of jail; senior dissidents continue to face years behind bars and several cases of vanished persons under the Lukashenko regime remain unanswered.
"What we are really interested in is finding [other] partners to talk to in the establishment," another EU diplomat told EUobserver. "You know, Minsk is not controlled by 5,000 Lukashenkos."