Updated at 18:18,16-07-2018

Reuters: Belarus, eyeing EU, vows to free prisoners


Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko is seeking to improve strained relations with the European Union by releasing political prisoners and holding talks on its political future, according to a document obtained by Reuters on Thursday.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov met Lukashenko in Minsk last week and outlined the proposals in a letter to the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and the bloc's foreign ministers ahead of talks in Poland this weekend.

According to Mladenov's letter, Lukashenko has agreed to release at least four prisoners by the end of this week and drop charges against another two. All remaining political activists would be released by the beginning of October.

The letter also said Lukashenko would call for round table talks with the opposition on the country's future - an appeal he made on Monday - and would urge the EU to send a team of 'wise men' to Minsk to monitor and facilitate such talks.

"I believe these initiatives, if implemented over the course of the next few days, would create an opening for the EU to engage constructively in support of democratisation in Belarus," Mladenov wrote.

EU foreign ministers are due to discuss Belarus on Saturday during talks at Sopot on Poland's Baltic coast.

Poland holds the EU's rotating presidency and is particularly keen to promote democracy and human rights in its ex-Soviet neighbours Belarus and Ukraine.

But Lukashenko, in power since 1994, faces an uphill struggle convincing the EU of his good faith. The EU and the United States imposed sanctions on Belarus after his crackdown on opposition protesters and journalists following a disputed presidential election last December.

The EU and Washington have demanded that Lukashenko grant a full political amnesty to all those prosecuted, charged and convicted over the election protests and that he start a genuinely open dialogue with his opponents.

Playing games

"There is no way anybody would now discuss (Lukashenko's proposal for round table talks and the visit of an EU team) as long as all prisoners are not freed. This is an absolute pre-condition," one EU diplomatic source told Reuters on Thursday, commenting on the Mladenov letter.

"Belarus is trying to play the same game as always but this time it won't work. Minsk tried to get in via traditional channels in Italy and Lithuania but was rebuffed and then Bulgaria agreed to step in."

The EU extended economic sanctions in June to companies linked to Lukashenko and added more officials to a list of more than 150 already facing visa bans.

Last month, the United States introduced sanctions against four firms owned or controlled by a company linked to Lukashenko in response to his government's crackdown on political opponents.

In his letter, Mladenov said Lukashenko's stated interest in renewing contacts with the EU "may have been driven by the financial restraints that the government is facing, as well as the effect of the sanctions and the external environment in general".

Belarus is struggling to overcome a balance-of-payments crisis that has forced it to devalue its rouble and allow price hikes that have angered consumers and led to a wave of protests.

On Tuesday, Lukashenko said Belarus would allow the rouble to float freely from the middle of September though it will prefer a preferential exchange rate for energy payments.