October 13, 2008 / 2:00 PM / 11 years ago

EU suspends travel ban on Belarus leader, others

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union suspended travel bans on Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and dozens of other officials on Monday as a reward for freeing political prisoners, but kept some sanctions in place.

In a further move to warm ties with former Soviet republics key to the bloc’s aim of diversifying its energy supply routes, EU ministers also ended most sanctions against gas-rich Uzbekistan after citing human rights progress in the Central Asian state, and pledged deeper ties with Moldova.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg suspended for six months the visa ban imposed on Lukashenko after he was accused of rigging his 2006 re-election, together with restrictions on other officials.

“He is free to travel,” an EU diplomat said of Lukashenko, whose government was branded “the last dictatorship in Europe” by the United States in 2005.

But ministers maintained asset freezes on top Belarussians and kept the head of the election commission, Lydia Yermoshina, on the travel ban list to show disappointment over the staging of a September election won overwhelmingly by Lukashenko allies.

A total of 41 officials had been covered by the travel bans. Diplomats said that aside from Yermoshina, four officials would also continue to be banned because of their alleged role in the “disappearances” of political activists.

Relations with the ex-Soviet republic and Brussels have warmed since August, when Belarus freed the last three detainees considered political prisoners and declined to follow Russia in recognizing breakaway regions of Georgia as independent.

ELECTION DISAPPOINTMENT

Several EU states, including the Netherlands, Sweden and Portugal had been reluctant to lift the ban on Lukashenko, given the conduct of last month’s election, described by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt as “profoundly lousy.”

But Germany has argued that the EU could best achieve its objectives of democracy and human rights through dialogue and the French EU presidency invited Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov to the talks in Luxembourg.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner met Martynov on Monday and told reporters it was important to send of signal of encouragement to moderates in Belarus.

“We have to have carrots and sticks...this is the right approach. For them to do something, we also have to do something,” she said, adding that Brussels hoped to see Belarus showing more respect in future for democratic freedoms.

The EU also did away with some sanctions imposed on gas-rich Uzbekistan in 2005, including visa bans on officials after the killing of demonstrators in the town of Andijan that May.

Separately, the EU ministers agreed to negotiate with the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova what they called an “ambitious new accord” on ties that would steps to boost trade with the EU.

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