The European Union has moved to curb Russia’s influence over its border states after officials called for better relations with Belarus, a nation long seen as one of Moscow’s most enthusiastic supporters.
Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy head, noted that Belarus, once described by Washington as Europe’s last dictatorship, had taken the positive step of releasing a number of political prisoners.
“We would like very much to find something on our side to reward that sort of behaviour,” Mr Solana said, adding that he had a long telephone conversation with Belarus’s foreign minister on Friday.
The EU’s external affairs commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said Europe should restart high-level meetings with the Belarussian government, which has also held out, much to Russia’s annoyance, from recognising South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The statements from the EU, which come as the West tries to limit Moscow’s power over its backyard in the wake of the Georgian crisis, could become the first shots in an East-West war of influence over Belarus as it gears up for parliamentary elections at the end of September.
Dictatorial President Aleksander Lukashenko has run Belarus on Soviet economic lines since 1994 and was a dogged supporter of Russia, even proposing the two countries unite.
But the happy relationship soured after Moscow demanded that Minsk pay market prices for its energy.
The regime, faced with crippling fuel bills and in need of friends, has made subtle overtures to the West, while at the same time loosening the state’s grip on the economy by earmarking some 500 companies for privatisation.
Poland, a leading proponent of bringing Belarus in from the cold, has called for a loosening of sanctions. Warsaw’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, said that if the EU can relax sanctions against Cuba, which he described as less free than Belarus, then it is only fair that they be lifted against Minsk.
Since 2006, after fraudulent presidential elections, forty high-ranking Belarussians including the president have been banned from entering the EU.