The Council of the European Union has welcomed "positive steps" in Belarus and has extended its suspension of travel restrictions for top government officials for a further nine months.
The prolonged visa ban, introduced in October 2008, covers over 30 officials and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, whose regime former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called "the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe."
The council said it would observe further developments and carry out "an in-depth review of the restrictive measures" in Belarus by the end of the nine-month period.
"Provided that there are further positive developments, it will be ready to consider the possibility of lifting the restrictive measures," the council said in a statement following a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, March 16.
However, the council decided to prolong other sanctions for another year, including an arms embargo and assets freeze. These had been introduced in 2006 following accusations that Lukashenko rigged the country's elections.
Human rights still need improvement
The council said it may "at any time" decide to re-apply the travel restrictions if necessary. This would depend on "the actions of the Belarusian authorities in the sphere of democracy and human rights."
Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said there was still much work to be done, though Belarus had begun to improve its record on human rights.
"On a scale from one to 10, I'd say we're probably at two or three," Stubb said. "But I think things are moving in the right direction."
Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic in an authoritarian manner since 1994. But he has made recent attempts at greater openness including the hiring of a western PR firm and cautious economic reform. Last year, the government also released leading opposition politicians from prison.
The bloc's external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said the return of two previously banned independent newspapers to the newsstands provided evidence that some "progress has been made in Belarus."
"But it is not enough," said Ferrero-Waldner.
The council said it continued to be concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus and recent cases of violations.
"The council stresses the importance for Belarus to address the concerns raised in this regard and to continue moving forward, through progressive substantial steps," it said in the statement.
A partnership with Belarus?
The Belarusian foreign ministry welcomed the EU move, but called for the lifting of all sanctions.
"This decision will allow pragmatic dialog between Belarus and the EU to continue," foreign ministry spokesman Andrei Popov said. "At the same time, we firmly believe it is long overdue to proceed with a full lifting of all restrictions which hinder the development of normal relations between Belarus and the EU."
The foreign ministers did not decide whether to invite Lukashenko to a May 7 summit in Prague that will launch the EU's Eastern Partnership, an initiative designed to boost ties with the bloc's Eastern neighbors.
"Whether Lukashenko is invited depends on if he is willing to underline publicly that the process of democratization and opening up of Belarus will be continued," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.
Access to the partnership would allow Belarus to enjoy a series of benefits, including financial aid, easier access to visas and greater cooperation on trade and energy security. EU leaders meeting in Brussels for a summit later this week are expected to decide on the Lukashenko invitation to Prague.
Opposition calls for more action
Belarusian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko called on the EU to exert more pressure on the government. Lebedko, leader of the United Civil Party, said Brussels should demand a precise timetable for democratic reforms in Belarus, according to the independent Belarusian news agency Belapan. Otherwise, the government could lose its motivation for change, he said.
Lebedko said Lukashenko's dialog with the EU did not include any other political parties or non-governmental organizations.
"This dialog will not lead to any positive results," he said. Last week, Lebedko already opposed inviting Lukashenko to the EU summit in Prague.