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24th Jul 2021

EU breaks the ice with Belarus

The European Commission has proposed inviting Belarus foreign minister Sergei Martynov to a high-level EU meeting, breaking a four-year long taboo on contact with the eastern European dictatorship.

"I believe there could be a so-called trojka meeting on the margins of the next foreign ministers session [in Paris on 15 September]," external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said at an informal EU gathering in Avignon, France on Saturday (6 September). "I would personally support such a move."

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The trojka would see Mr Martynov - a former Belarus ambassador to the EU known for his fluent English and open manner - talk about future relations with the commissioner, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and EU top diplomat Javier Solana.

The EU currently has a visa ban on 41 senior Belarus figures. It has also banned bilateral meetings between EU member states and Belarus officials above deputy minister-level and has excluded the country from its list of low tariff trade partners. Mr Martynov's trip to Paris would require a temporary derogation from the visa ban list.

The commission proposal comes after Belarus freed three political prisoners last month. The one-time Russia ally is trying to build better relations with the EU amid Russian pressure to move closer to state union or risk paying higher prices for gas.

"It is a very good time to rethink our relations with Belarus. Belarus is sending desperate signals to the West," Lithuanian foreign minister Petras Vaitiekunas said at the Avignon gathering, newswires report.

"Compared to Cuba [on which the EU lifted sanctions in June], Belarus - while still far away from our standards - is a less restrictive regime, in which you can do business, you can travel and which has no political prisoners," Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said.

The EU ministers indicated that any large-scale review of sanctions would not take place unless the OSCE gives a positive verdict on the conduct of Belarus parliamentary elections on 28 September. They also warned Minsk to resist Moscow's call to recognise the independence of two breakaway regions in Georgia.

"Belarus can show a real willingness to open up...if it doesn't recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia," Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet said.

Meanwhile, Belarus pro-democracy activists are wary the EU may normalise relations for strategic reasons instead of waiting for deeper democratic reforms.

"We are being put under pressure to take part in an electoral farce, so that the US and Europe have a chance to recognise [Belarus president] Lukashenka," the co-founder of the Charter97 opposition group, Andrei Sannikov, said in an interview with Voice of America.

The OSCE's election-monitoring verdict is supposed to be an independent assessment of technical aspects of the vote, such as candidates' access to media and ballot counting. But one EU official suggested that Western governments can influence the judgement.

"No matter what happens in the elections, the OSCE verdict will say something positive about democratic reforms," the European Commission contact said.

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