EU lifts sanctions on 170 Belarusian officials

BRUSSELS – The European Union lifted most sanctions against Belarus’ authoritarian president and scores of other officials to reward the east European nation for a more constructive role in a region still under Russia’s influence.

Asset freezes and travel bans against President Alexander Lukashenko and 169 others had been suspended last year and Monday’s meeting of the EU foreign ministers decided to fully do away with them.

“We are not recognizing a situation that turns from black to pink overnight,” EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said, referring to remaining human and political rights concerns. “We have agreed on the fact that we have seen over the last couple of years some steps that are encouraging and that we want to try to support and encourage further.”

At the same time, the EU nations maintained sanctions against four individuals linked to the unsolved disappearances of two opposition leaders, a journalist and a businessman. An arms embargo also remains in place for another year.

In a statement, the ministers said that the release of all remaining political prisoners and the lack of violence during the October presidential elections contributed to the decision.

“There is an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop on a more positive agenda and that progress in a variety of fields can better be achieved through enhanced channels of communication,” the ministers said.

It was the latest EU move that could contribute to the end of the decade-long international isolation of Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994.

Lukashenko was slapped with an EU and U.S. travel ban in 2006 when a presidential candidate was jailed. The 2010 presidential election ended in a big opposition rally and lengthy prison sentences for most of the candidates who opposed Lukashenko.

Lukashenko took a first step toward exiting international isolation last year when Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, refused to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea or support Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed rebels have been fighting government forces. Lukashenko also resisted the Kremlin’s push for Belarus to host a Russian military base.

Lukashenko helped to broker peace talks between Russia and Ukraine last year.