EU agrees to lift Belarus sanctions, keeps arms embargo in place

EU foreign ministers decided Monday to lift the bulk of the bloc's sanctions against Belarus, in recognition of democratic progress made by the former Soviet state, paving the way for closer relations.

Belarus has been called Europe's last dictatorship, but its dealings with the European Union and the United States have warmed since Minsk's release of political prisoners and the country's contribution to a deal on the Ukraine crisis.

In October, following a broadly democratic presidential election, Brussels suspended travel bans and asset freezes against 170 people and three entities until February 29. Washington also offered sanctions relief to nine Belarusian entities.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to permanently lift the suspended sanctions once they expire at the end of the month.

"There is an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop on a more positive agenda," they said in a joint statement.

However, an arms embargo is to remain in place for twelve more months, along with restrictive measures on four people thought to be involved in the disappearance of regime critics 15 years ago.

Despite the recent signs of progress out of Minsk, rights groups worry that serious shortfalls remain in the areas of democracy and human rights, including the existence of the death penalty, a practice opposed by the EU.

Member states had been divided over the best course of action, with some believing that sanctions relief will improve the situation in Belarus, while others preferred to retain some leverage over Minsk.

"I think that what we have on the table today is a good compromise," said Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, whose country had lobbied for keeping sanctions in place.

The remaining measures will make it easier to ratchet up pressure on Minsk if the situation deteriorates again, an EU diplomat noted on condition of anonymity.

Belarus is one of six former Soviet states with whom the EU has sought closer relations, under its Eastern Partnership programme.

The policy has strained relations with Russia, notably in the case of Ukraine where the attempt to forge closer ties between Brussels and Kiev triggered the country's current crisis.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

More from Europe

Northern Irish court dismisses first legal challenges to Brexit

A court in Northern Ireland on Friday dismissed the first legal challenges to Britain's plans to leave the European...

Survey: German entrepreneurs want to expand business in Russia

Despite recession and sanctions, German companies want to expand their businesses in Russia, according to a recent...

Sweden denies Assange temporary leave to attend funeral

A request by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for temporary leave to attend a funeral for a close associate in...

OPEC meets in Vienna to discuss possible freeze on production

Members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) met Friday in Vienna for talks about a possible...

Midwife sentenced to 15 years for trying to kill pregnant women

A 35-year-old midwife was found guilty Friday of seven counts of attempted murder and handed 15 years in prison for...