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EU nations split between hard and soft approaches to Belarus

Brusssels — EU nations are split, ahead of a foreign ministers meeting Monday, on how to persuade Belarus and its hardline President Alexander Lukashenko to boost democracy and keep Moscow at arm’s length.

A draft agreement prepared for the ministers’ meeting welcomes "certain positive steps" made by Belarus and its leader — dubbed "the last dictator in Europe" in Washington — notably cooperation with the OSCE on electoral legislation.

However the statement, obtained Friday, also decries "recent cases of violations" of human rights in Belarus.

The argument on how to handle Minsk is as much a tactical one as a political one, a European diplomat explained.

"If one of these regimes does something bad some people in the European Union say: ‘well that means we should try even harder to reach out to them’ and other people say: ‘no I think we should be tougher’."

The most urgent EU-Belarus matter facing the ministers when they assemble in Brussels on Monday is the issue of the travel bans against Lukashenko and 35 of his associates.

Last year the 27 European Union nations made a major, if largely symbolic, step by suspending the visa bans for six months.

While, according to diplomats, no European nation is arguing against extending the suspension for a further six months, differences remain over the longer-term treatment of Belarus, which borders Russia to the east and EU members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to the west.

Some nations would like to keep the option of sanctions as a lever for longer, even if they are further suspended, while others would prefer to see them lapse altogether in six months if human rights and democratic improvements are made.

The debate is made more urgent as the European Union must decide whether to invite Lukashenko to a summit in Prague on May 7 along with EU leaders, and those of five other former Soviet states, to launch the Union’s "Eastern Partnership" initiative.

The partnership is aimed at encouraging economic and democratic reforms in the eastern nations and cooperation with Europe and among themselves.

Unlike Ukraine and Georgia — definite invitees to the Eastern Partnership talks — Belarus has remained close to Moscow.

"Whatever you think about the regime at the moment, Belarus is an immediate neighbour of the European Union and it’s a country that clearly sees itself as being torn by the EU on one side and Russia on the other," the EU diplomat said.

"We think it is worth engaging it and demonstrating to Belarus that there are things that it can get from this relationship" with Europe, he added.

Diplomats said that if there was no agreement on the sanctions at Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers then the sanctions would automatically reapply.

Therefore those nations, like Germany, most opposed to the sanctions will have to agree a deal with the others, diplomats explained.