Eastern Partnership : Question Mark Still Hangs over Belarus' Participation

Article excerpt

Uncertainty continues to surround the participation of Belarus in the Eastern Partnership, a high-ranking EU official has said. Briefing the members of the European Parliament, on 12 March, on the content of this new Eastern-oriented initiative, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the commissioner for external relations and the European Neighbourhood Policy, described the question of Minsk's potential membership as "very delicate." "We are not yet satisfied, but we have seen some positive steps, too," she said, emphasising the ambiguity of the situation.

The statement came ahead of the EU foreign ministers' discussion, scheduled for 16 March, on the political situation in Belarus in view of the possible extension of the current suspension of sanctions against the country by another six months. The decision on the revocation or further suspension of the sanctions is expected to determine Belarus' involvement in Eastern Partnership, which was finalised and formally approved at the spring EU summit, on 19-20 March.

Last October, the EU decided to temporarily lift visa sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and 35 of his officials for half a year, to renew political contacts and open new possibilities for cooperation with the country in the wake of the Georgia-Russia war in August. Russia's military intervention against Georgia has prompted the EU to enhance ties with its Eastern neighbours, including Belarus. To this end, the EU offered Minsk participation in the Eastern Partnership - a new initiative providing for deeper political and economic ties, including free trade agreements and "in the long run" a visa-free regime, with five other countries in the region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine).

A majority of member states want to extend the suspension by another six months. They believe that Belarus is important enough, and has proven sufficiently pliant over the past six months to justify another half year of good faith on the part of the EU. However, this view is challenged by some member states, such as the Netherlands, which call into question Belarus' real progress on human rights issues. …