The European Union yesterday (25 February) formally put an end to all its sanctions against Belarus, including sanctions against Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, thanks to the recent improvement in the country’s human rights record. EU foreign ministers made this decision earlier in February after President Lukashenko had released the last political prisoners jailed for challenging his 21-year-long rule and following the presidential elections in October, which were, according to the EU top officials, held in “a peaceful environment”, though Belarus still had a “considerable way to go” in fulfilling international standards.
EU leadership commented earlier that the release of the political prisoners was a “long sought step” and together with the October polls, provided “an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop on a more positive agenda.” While some Member States were still hesitant to drop punitive measures against Minsk, most EU countries agreed that it was the best decision towards better relations with Belarus. Brussels also reminded that Belarus’ Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and who has been dubbed Europe’s “Last Director”, had played a key role in the EU efforts to mediate peace talks between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels.
The host of sanctions included asset freezes and travel bans against 170 individuals and three Belarussian entities. Yet, the end of sanctions is not final for four people who are “listed in connection with the unresolved disappearances of two opposition politicians, one businessman and one journalist.” The EU will also prolong a long-standing arms embargo for another year.
The EU established diplomatic ties with Belarus in 1991 after it had recognized the country’s independence. After the rise to power of Alexander Lukashenko in 1994, mutual relations between both parties deteriorated. The presidential elections in 2010, which saw a landslide victory of almost 80 percent votes for Lukashenko, led to mass demonstrations and the imprisonment of opposition figures and protesters, which the EU described as contravention to human rights and, in response, imposed sanctions against his regime.