Europe's Last Dictator Back in Favor as EU Courts Belarus

VIETNAM-BELARUS-DIPLOMACY

Alexander Lukashenko

Photographer: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP via Getty Images
  • EU scraps asset freeze, travel ban on 170 Belarus officials
  • Lukashenko is wooed by EU to counter Kremlin's regional sway

European Union governments scrapped sanctions on leaders of Belarus in an effort to pry the former Soviet republic out of the shadow of the Kremlin.

Asset freezes and travel bans on 170 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko, were revoked by EU foreign ministers on Monday in Brussels. The decision made permanent a suspension in effect since October.

Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, has warmed to the West as economic troubles pile up at home. EU governments rewarded him for freeing political prisoners and playing a role in mediating the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine, signed a year ago in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.

“This is an experiment,” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters. “As a neighbor of Belarus, we are pleased as we hope this will improve relations with the EU and of course with Poland.”

Belarus is the northernmost link in a chain of ex-Soviet republics that make up a buffer between the 28-nation EU and Russia and are torn between the economic liberties of the West and the historic pull of the Kremlin.

“Lukashenko has recently acted like a fairly independent player,” said Igar Gubarevich, senior analyst at the Ostrogorski Center, a London research group. “The EU is most concerned with issues of regional security, so it wouldn’t like to rebuke Belarus and push it into Russia’s embrace.”

Belarus’s international reserves are at the lowest since 2011 and the country has made little progress in obtaining new foreign loans. The government in Minsk expects an International Monetary Fund decision on a $3 billion, 10-year loan by the end of March.

‘Different Policy’

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the “beginnings” of a thaw with Belarus. “It’s worth testing in such a situation how much willingness and reciprocity there is on the Belarus side,” he said.

The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and was re-elected last year with 83.5 percent of the vote.

In a statement, the EU ministers said Belarus needs to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. It dangled the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU.

Three Belarusian companies were also taken off the EU blacklist. The trading bloc maintains an arms embargo and sanctions against four people suspected to be involved in the disappearance of dissidents in the 1990s.

Lukashenko is giving “special attention” to normalizing relations with Europe and the U.S., Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said on Feb. 8, according to Belta news service.

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