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EASTERN PARTNERSHIP : QUESTION MARK STILL HANGS OVER BELARUS' PARTICIPATION.

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 is to be 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.

Despite pressure from the EU, Belarus' reform implementation record is not impressive. Since the suspension of the visa ban, the authoritarian regime made only one concrete move. Last November, the Belarusian authorities allowed the printing and distribution of two independent newspapers, Narodnaia Volia and Nasha Niva (there are 13 independent newspapers still awaiting registration). Meanwhile, the majority of the outstanding reforms still remain in the sphere of undelivered promises.

The recent last-minute cancellation of Lukashenko's meeting with Ferrero-Waldner has added to doubts surrounding the quality of Belarus' commitment to cooperation with the EU. One day before Ferrero-Waldner was to arrive in Belarus, Lukashenko's office said that the president would not be in Minsk, on 13 March, when he was expected to meet with the commissioner. This prompted a postponement of the visit until mid-April. "The situation is very sensitive due to recent developments," an EU diplomat told Europolitics, commenting on the member states' reaction to the unexpected cancellation of Ferrero-Waldner's meeting with Lukashenko.

CZECHS FAVOUR YES'

In its capacity as holder of the EU's Presidency, the Czech Republic is responsible for proposing the draft text of the European Council's conclusions. Prague is in favour of Belarus' participation in the Eastern Partnership initiative. The draft conclusions put forward by Prague for the 19-20 March summit list Belarus among five other countries to be covered by the new initiative. "The European Council agrees on a deeper bilateral engagement and on a new multilateral framework involving the EU, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, aiming at accelerating reforms, approximation and integration," reads the document obtained by Europolitics.

The Council's conclusions on the Eastern Partnership are due to be accompanied by a separate declaration on the new initiative. The text of this document is to be formulated by the foreign ministers, on 16 March, with the 27 leaders giving it final shape during the summit.
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Publication:European Report
Geographic Code:4EXBE
Date:Mar 13, 2009
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