EU Lifts Ban on Lukashenko

APFrance's Bernard Kouchner opening EU foreign ministers' talks Monday.
LUXEMBOURG -- The European Union temporarily lifted a travel ban on Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Monday as relations with the country started to thaw, diplomats said.

The decision was made by the 27 EU foreign ministers after EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner held talks with Belarussian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov -- the first high-level talks between the EU and Belarus in four years.

Ferrero-Waldner said geopolitical issues were at stake in the relations with Belarus but the EU's primary goal was for Belarus to improve human rights and institute democratic reforms.

"We have to show that progress is being rewarded," Ferrero-Waldner said. "For them to do something, we also have to do something."

Belarussian authorities recently freed detained opposition figures after Western governments demanded they be released from prison.

They also allowed opposition candidates to take part in Sept. 28 parliamentary elections. None of the 70 opposition candidates won places in the 110-seat parliament, though, and European observers said the elections fell short of international standards

The EU had imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and other senior Belarussian officials in 1999 after several crackdowns on the political opposition. The travel ban covered 41 people in all.

Monday's decision leaves travel bans in place against six people, including Central Elections Commission chief Lidia Yermoshina and Interior Minister Vladimir Naumov, who were involved in a crackdown against opposition groups and disappearances of four notable opposition leaders in 1999 and 2000.

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb called for better cooperation between the EU and Belarus. "Things are improving, but they are far, far, far from perfect," Stubb said, speaking in Finland's capacity as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The EU also dropped a travel ban on Uzbek officials imposed after a bloody crackdown on an uprising in 2005, saying the country had made some progress in improving human rights.