Updated at 17:46,10-07-2018

Makey to fly to Brussels, but Minsk still reluctant to free imprisoned opponents

By Andrey Fyodaraw, belapan.com

Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey plans to attend a meeting of the foreign ministers of member EU states and the Eastern Partnership participating countries, which will be held in Brussels on July 22. The visit comes weeks after a discussion on Belarus in the European Parliament.

Makey accepted the invitation despite his vehement opposition to EU sanctions against Belarus. The sanctions are "absolutely abnormal" and should be abolished, Makey said at a news conference following a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow on July 10.

The EU, however, insists on the release of what it calls political prisoners before any talks with Minsk on the sanctions. As many as 241 Belarusians, including Alyaksandr Lukashenka, are currently subject to travel bans and 242 persons plus 30 business entities are subject to asset freezes within the EU. The EU Foreign Affairs Council suspended the entry ban on Makey last month.

On July 10, the foreign minister reiterated Belarus’ interest in involvement in the EU’s Eastern Partnership program. "We can borrow something useful from it, can take part in some regional programs that may bring benefits to Belarus," he said. However, he hinted that Minsk could withdraw if it found it no longer useful.

EP specifies reference points

Separately, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on July 9 approved a report on Belarus prepared by Justas Paleckis, the EP's rapporteur on Belarus, for the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the European External Action Service.

The controversial report was written by Paleckis following his May 18-21 visit to Minsk. The initial version, in which he noted improvements in the human rights situation in Belarus in 2012 and recommended suspending entry bans against Belarusian officials, met with criticism from Belarusian opposition activists and human rights defenders, while the Belarusian foreign ministry expressed hope that the report would help Belarus and the European Union step up their dialogue.

Paleckis insisted that his report was based on information published on the human rights website www.spring96.org, which he said reported a threefold decrease in the number of arrests, searches and other repressive instances in Belarus in 2012.

The European Union should "reiterate the need for the unconditional and immediate release and rehabilitation of the political and civic rights of all remaining political prisoners to be a prerequisite for a gradual lifting of EU restrictive measures and for a substantial upgrade in EU-Belarus relations," the new version says. The report appears to be more balanced after an update.

Paleckis suggests using Lithuania’s EU presidency in the second half of 2013 and a European Partnership summit to be held in Vilnius in November "as unique opportunities to improve relations with Belarus, including with a view to restarting the political dialogue on, inter alia, democratic reforms and respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms."

The EU should "consider the suspension of key officials from the EU visa ban list with a view to broadening the main and essential diplomatic communication channel with Belarus, also in view of the Eastern Partnership summit," it says.

According to the document, the Belarusian authorities should "fully implement electoral code reforms on the basis of OSCE/ODIHR recommendations; lift all restrictions imposed on the democratic opposition; fully modernize the judiciary in line with international standards; work towards the abolition of the death penalty; reform its Criminal Code and in particular Article 193.1 [which penalizes acting on behalf of unregistered organizations]; allow access for representatives of the relevant international organizations and members of families to all Belarusian prisons; remove any existing obstacles to NGO registration; guarantee effective freedom of and access to the media; create an independent and fully functional ombudsman; and ensure equal opportunities for and the inclusion and non-discrimination of all minorities."

The recommendations propose considering "unilaterally facilitating the issuing of visas and reducing their cost from EUR 60 to an affordable level for Belarusian citizens, and making full use of the existing flexibilities offered by the Visa Code, including the waiver or reduction of fees for short-stay visas; also consider unilaterally reducing or waiving the visa fees for long-stay visas."

The recommendations can be used as reference points for the future, but are unlikely to be accepted by Minsk soon.

The Belarusian government is reluctant to make any concessions to the West. But it may eventually change its approach if relations with Russia deteriorate.