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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on October 4th, 2008
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

EU states agree to invite Belarus minister {as an outsider to their foreign ministers’ meeting.}
PHILIPPA RUNNER, EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS, October 3, 2008.

EU states have agreed to invite Belarus foreign minister Sergei Martynov to a prestigious meeting in Brussels, as the French EU presidency struggles to counter Russian diplomacy on the union’s eastern fringe.

The Belarusian minister is to take part in a “troika” with EU foreign relations chief Javier Solana, external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner on 13 October, on the margins of a wider EU foreign ministers’ meeting on the same day.

Senior EU diplomats made the decision in Brussels on Friday (3 October), with Mr Kouchner’s office set to rubber-stamp the move before a formal invitation goes out. A previous suggestion to bring Mr Martynov to Paris in September was judged premature at the time.

The formal invitation may be made before Monday, when Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin plans to visit Minsk, in order to show Belarus that the EU is taking seriously its latest offer of a rapprochement with the West.

“We wouldn’t like to leave Belarus in the arms of Russia,” a French diplomat told EUobserver. “We want to see what we could do in order not to give up [EU] sanctions totally, the sticks, but to give some carrots at the same time.”

France is “considering” the risk that Mr Putin will use the threat of gas price hikes against Belarus in 2009 to pressure the country into recognising Georgia rebel enclaves South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, she added.

The Martynov-troika meeting would signal a breakthrough in EU-Belarus relations. In 1997, the EU froze contacts with Belarus officials above the deputy-minister level, and between 2004 and 2006 imposed a visa ban on 41 officials, including President Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarussian parliamentary elections last Sunday were judged undemocratic by the EU and the OSCE. But Belarus has released political prisoners and allowed small anti-Lukashenko protests, as it seeks Western support in a bid to resist becoming a Russian client state.

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Unturning the screw:

The EU is also considering relaxing its legal sanctions package on top of the one-off Martynov gesture.

The latest options discussed internally include a temporary suspension of the visa ban for some of the names on the list. The suspension could include President Lukashenko himself, but not people such as Viktor Sheyman, a former security chief implicated in the disappearance of three anti-government activists in 1999.

The EU is also debating ending the 1997 ban on high-level contacts and chopping the costs of EU visas from €60 (one third the average monthly wage in Belarus) to €35 per visit.

The visa move could help build pro-EU sentiment among ordinary Belarusians and advertise the benefits of political reform. “We want people to come to Vilnius and see how things look in a democracy, how much we have prospered,” a Lithuanian official said.

Any sanctions decision will wait until the 13 October EU foreign ministers’ meeting however, in case the unpredictable President Lukashenko makes a u-turn after the Putin visit next week.

Dutch obstacle:

The large majority of EU states in favour of softening sanctions will also have to persuade Dutch foreign minister Maxim Verhagen of the merit of such a move.

“We are not convinced there has been any major improvement [in the political climate in Belarus]. He [Mr Verhagen] doesn’t see any grounds for a substantial change,” a Dutch diplomat said.

“We’re talking about human rights here and we have to take things seriously,” he added. “This has all the makings of being a substantial discussion point in the GAERC [the EU foreign ministers gathering].”

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