By Ahto Lobjakas
Diplomats in Brussels say EU ambassadors have agreed to extend by another 12 months a visa ban on top Belarusian officials.
They suspended the ban, however, for most of the officials in a gesture of goodwill. The complex signals reflect the EU's wish to develop a closer relationship with Belarus -- and offer an alternative to Russia -- without giving up pressure on Minsk to democratize.
The visa ban on 41 top figures in Belarus was first introduced in the wake of the flawed presidential election of March 2006.
The EU, however, is set to extend by another 12 months a 2008 exemption allowing 36 of the officials -- among them President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- to travel within the EU on the condition that the human rights situation in the country does not deteriorate.
The issue will be formally decided at a foreign ministers' meeting on October 25.
A group of member states led by Poland and Sweden wanted the EU to commit itself to a review of relations with Belarus relations in six months' time. Germany leads another camp advocating a softer approach.
There was general agreement among all member states, however, that EU ambassadors will revisit the issue after the December 19 presidential election in Belarus.
The complexity of the decision reflects a certain contradiction in the EU's motives. On the one hand, the bloc wants to encourage dialogue with Belarus and -- less overtly -- provide a geopolitical alternative to Russia.
Human Rights Concerns
Suspending the visa bans, along with other moves aimed at unfreezing ties with Minsk, came at the EU's initiative after the Russia-Georgian war in 2008. That conflict persuaded Brussels and many other EU capitals of the need to step up efforts to reengage Belarus -- even if the costs may have appeared high.
At the same time, the EU is keen to retain credible leverage for reacting to rights violations in Belarus. Officials note the situation in the country, although largely stable, has not improved.
This is underscored by the fact that the EU has been unable to make use of a clause, inserted in the last time the visa ban was extended -- and partially suspended -- in November 2009.
The clause says the ban could be lifted "at any time, in light of actions by the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights." The reverse, however also applies -- the continued suspension of the ban is conditional on Minsk's willingness to cooperate with the EU.
Overall, the decision expected from the October 25 foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg is intended to signal that the EU's patience has not run out. It appears the bloc is prepared to tolerate continued sporadic low-level abuses such as the recent suspicious death of opposition activist Aleh Byabenin.
On the other hand, diplomats say, the extension of the ban is also intended to serve as a warning to Lukashenka ahead of the December 19 presidential election. The election already appears tainted after leading opposition figure Alyaksandr Milinkievich refused to run citing his belief the poll will not be free or fair.
But Belarus's continued refusal to recognize the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent remains a key litmus test of Lukashenka's intentions. Moscow has pushed hard for Minsk to recognize the two territories while Brussels, like the overwhelming majority of the international community, considers them to be parts of Georgia.
In recent months, Lukashenka's stubbornness has further contributed to his rapidly worsening relations with Moscow -- piling on the pressure for the EU to allow Belarus to move closer. Brussels has repeatedly signaled over the past two years that relatively minor democratic concessions could open the door to Partnership and Cooperation Agreement talks with Minsk.