EU lifts bulk of Belarus sanctions in "experiment"

EU lifts bulk of Belarus sanctions in
The EU has eased its choke hold on Belarus and President Lukashenko.
By bne IntelliNews February 15, 2016

The European Union lifted the majority of its sanctions against Belarus on February 15, citing the country's improved civil rights record and the absence of violence in last October's re-election of the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko for a fifth term.

The move is likely to bring a swell of Western investment in the former Soviet republic, which is in desperate need of additional cash flows after its national reserves fell below $5bn, their lowest ebb since 2011.

The EU foreign ministers met in Brussels to formalise last October's de facto lifting of asset freezes and travel bans against Lukashenko and 169 other officials and representatives of the country.

"We are not recognizing a situation that turns from black to pink overnight," EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in comments reported by AP, referring to enduring concerns about human and political rights. "We have agreed on the fact that we have seen over the last couple of years some steps that are encouraging and that we want to try to support and encourage further."

Three Belarusian companies were also taken off the EU blacklist, although the Union will maintain its arms embargo and sanctions against four people suspected of involvement in the disappearance of dissidents in the 1990s.

The EU ministers said in a statement that Belarus must yet develop a "vibrant civil society" with more media freedom. The statement also raised the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision as an important step on the way towards full normalisation of relations and as opening up new opportunities for interaction between Belarus and the EU.

"We are convinced that the decision meets interests of Belarus, the European Union, and the entire European region as a whole. The decision vividly testifies that dialogue is the most effective way of resolving differences. We hope that the decision will contribute to stronger regional stability and security," ministry spokesman Dmitry Mironchik said in comments reported by Belta news agency.

The EU ministers said the release of all remaining political prisoners before last October's election played a large part in the move. Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and has been sanctioned since 2006, also scored points internationally for his mediation between the West, Russia and the sides in Ukraine's separatist conflict in the eastern Donbas region.

However, Belarus still remains heavily interlinked with Russia, its main trading partner, reliable source of cheap oil, and staunchest political ally.

EU "experiment"

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke in Brussles 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.

"This is an experiment," added Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, according to Bloomberg. "As a neighbour of Belarus, we are pleased as we hope this will improve relations with the EU and of course with Poland."

Often described as "Europe's last dictator", Lukashenko has softened his rhetoric towards the West as his country courts the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors for credits. The IMF calls for the Belarusian government to introduce deep structural reforms, but Lukashenko rejects a fundamental change of course in Belarus and its heavily state-controlled and subsidised economy.

While still seeking a new $2bn aid package from the Russia-led Eurasian Fund for Stabilisation and Development (EFSD), Minsk increasingly seems to be counting on securing a $3bn, ten-year IMF bail-out by the end of March.