Brussels - European Union foreign ministers on Monday kept the threat of sanctions hanging over Belarus, but decided not to implement the threat in the hope of encouraging the authoritarian state towards democratic reforms.
Belarus is sometimes called 'Europe's last dictatorship' and political life is marked by the total dominance of President Alexander Lukashenko. The state is set to hold presidential elections on December 19, with Lukashenko expected to claim a total victory.
The EU 'is not able to lift the restrictive measures in place against certain officials of Belarus and therefore decides to extend them until October 31, 2011' because of human-rights concerns, ministers said in a joint statement.
The main plank of the sanctions is a travel ban on 36 Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko.
However, 'in order to encourage progress in (human rights and democracy), the (EU) decides at the same time to extend the suspension of the application of the travel restrictions until the same date,' the statement said.
The EU first introduced the travel ban in 2007 in response to alleged human rights violations by the Belarus regime.
The EU's carrot-and-stick approach reflects different opinions within the 27-member bloc on how to deal with what is often described as Europe's last dictatorship.
Italy, in particular, argues that it would be better to build political dialogue with Lukashenko and demanded that the sanctions be dropped if the elections in December are judged to be fair.
In 2009, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, who is himself accused of cracking down on media freedom, became the first EU leader to visit Minsk in what was seen as a move to build diplomatic and business ties with a formerly pariah state.