EU 'deplores' Milinkevich arrest
The EU has renewed calls for the release of Belarus political prisoners such as opposition leaders Alexander Milinkevich and Alexander Kazulin, hinting that positive steps from Minsk could win favour in Brussels.
"We have demanded a number of times that prisoners are released. We deplore this very much," top-level EU diplomat Pirkka Tapiola told the politicians' wives at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday (27 April) following an emotional appeal for help.
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"We are extremely concerned about the fate of your husbands," European Commission eastern Europe director Hugues Mingarelli added. "We are doing our best to release them."
Mr Milinkevich was thrown in jail for 15 days on Thursday morning after addressing a 10,000 strong anti-government protest in Minsk on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on Wednesday.
Mr Kazulin, arrested shortly after the 19 March presidential elections, is up on charges that could see him put behind bars for several years. Between 20 and 50 political prisoners are currently being held.
Releasing prisoners "is one of the criteria that is very much there" in terms of getting the EU to take names off its Belarus visa ban list, Mr Tapiola said, stressing that other steps toward democratisation, such as access to free press, would also be needed to review the list.
Names can be taken off or added to the travel ban list based on Belarus' future treatment of political opponents, the commission's Mr Mingarelli explained.
The EU on 10 April extended its visa ban from six to 37 Belarusian politicians after the OSCE deemed the 19 March elections to be a sham. The list is the EU's only punitive tool against the Minsk regime for now.
Member states and the US are also preparing to try and freeze the foreign financial assets of those on the blacklist, including billionaire president Alexander Lukashenko.
A decision on the freeze is expected on 15 May, but US diplomats told EUobserver that "major banking centres" believed to be holding the cash are not keen to play ball.
The EU is also exploring ways to target Belarusian companies which directly enrich the political elite in the country – but so far there is no clear way of imposing trade bans without hurting the general Belarusian public.
Put Belarus on G8 summit
Mr Milinkevich's wife, Ina Kulei, and Belarusian opposition activists present at Thursday's debate also called on the EU to put Belarus on the agenda of the G8 summit in St Petersburg in July.
"Russia holds the chair of the G8 and we want pressure to be put on Russia to end its support for the regime in Belarus," Alexander Atroshchankau, from the militant youth movement Zubr, said.
The commission's Mr Mingarelli indicated that Belarus is on the table "in all of our political dialogues with Russia" but that "we have to recognise that so far this has had little effect."
Russia is the "800 pound gorilla in the room question" on Belarus, Mr Tapiola said.
Both men indicated the EU is seeking ways to work more flexibly with Belarusian NGOs and opposition candidates in the 2007 to 2013 EU budget period.
Mr Mingarelli said that a commission charge d'affaires, based in Kiev but spending most of his time in Minsk, will soon begin work to better grasp the needs of local activists.
Moment of truth
In a rare moment of self-criticism by Brussels, Mr Mingarelli admitted that the EU's previous aid efforts for Belarus have achieved little due to the EU's tough NGO funding rules.
"It is true that we have not been able to do what you ask us," he stated. "I'm sure we could be more efficient."
Brussels and old EU member states' attitude toward Belarus has improved in the past two years in the eyes of MEPs such as Latvian conservative Aldis Kuskis however.
Pointing to the spectacle of Mr Mingarelli sitting in the same row with young Zubr activist Mr Atroshchankau, he said "two years ago we couldn't get anybody [from the commission top brass] to come to a meeting like this."
This story was amended on 28 April after obtaining further clarification. The orginal story, entitled "EU dangles visas for prisoners offer to Belarus" published on 27 April gave the erroneous impression of a simple swap following Mr Milinkevich's arrest