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Europe

EU Looks for Ties in Russia's Backyard after Georgia War

The EU must open the door to a rapprochement with Belarus and support reconstruction and peace in Georgia and Moldova if it is to counter Russia's growing assertiveness in eastern Europe, EU foreign ministers said.

Supporters of Belarus' opposition with banned Belarusian flags, are seen through an EU flag during a rally on a main square in central Minsk

Recognizing Georgia's rebel provinces would push Belarus away from the EU

"We should encourage Belarus to improve the way they conduct their elections and we should give them incentives. We need a process of rebuilding trust," Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski told DPA news agency from the ministers' informal meeting in Avignon, France, on Saturday, Sept. 6.

"It is a very good time to rethink our relations with Belarus. Belarus is sending desperate signals to the West," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said.

Officially, Saturday's talks were set to focus on the EU's relationship with Russia and Georgia following their war in August.

Sarkozy heads to Moscow

But with French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency -- set to travel to Moscow for talks on the issue on Monday, the officials turned their focus to the question of how to respond to Russia's new assertiveness.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (right) and Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski during a walk at Sikorski's private residence in Chobielin near Bydgoszcz

Sikorski and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier

During their talks, they discussed Turkish proposals on maintaining stability in the Caucasus and debated how the EU should strengthen international efforts to solve the conflict between Moldova and its rebel region of Transnistria -- a process in which Russia is currently pushing for a trilateral solution.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said that he had spoken with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin on Thursday, and that Voronin stressed that he still saw the peace process as an internationally monitored process.

EU aid for Georgia expected

After the talks, Foreign-Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU was likely to offer Georgia financial assistance to help overcome the post-war economic crisis, with the total this year possibly reaching 100 million euros ($143 million).

"The military destruction is much bigger than the civilian and we think that we have to assess our needs according to that... We will have to help, and we will do so," she said.

And following Belarus' release of its final political prisoners during the summer, some EU ministers called for a strong sign to the authoritarian regime of President Alexander Lukashenko that Minsk has something to gain from bringing in democratic reforms.

Belarus "is not a regime that we admire but we should recognize what has been done. We now have an anomaly, we've dropped sanctions on Cuba where there are 260 political prisoners, Belarus has released its prisoners," Sikorski said.

EU mulls lifting restrictions on Belarus

The EU currently has travel bans in place against Belarusian regime figures, and its first step should therefore be to step up diplomatic contacts, officials said.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko

Sikorski said the EU doesn't admire Lukashenko's regime

Ministers have decided in principle to invite Belarusian Foreign Minister Sergei Martynov to talks in Brussels, although it is not yet sure whether they will do so ahead of the next formal ministerial session on Sept. 15, Kouchner told DPA.

However, member states remained divided on whether they should make a move before Belarus holds elections on Sept. 28.

"It would be good to send some signals now, and in case of democratic free and fair elections to change (the EU's) general policies," Vaitiekunas said.

"We'll have to have a look at that at a later stage," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said.

EU officials say that a key question is whether Belarus will follow Russia's lead and recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- something the EU firmly rejects.

"Belarus can show real willingness to open up, move closer to Western Europe if they do not also recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But of course Belarus at the moment is under very heavy pressure from Russia," Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said.

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