RIGA, Latvia (AP) — The European Union is starting to warm to Belarus again after years of bitter division during which the east European nation was coined as "the last dictatorship" on the continent.
At the end of Saturday's EU foreign affairs meeting, the Latvian host said that as relations with Russia take a further dive "we see the opportunity to broaden and deepen relations with Belarus."
"There are of course some outstanding issues, political prisoners," said Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics. But, he added, "we see that we can also move more in this direction."
The move is seen to reward authoritarian Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko for his help in clinching a Ukraine peace deal in his capital Minsk last month and some hesitant signs of more democratic openness.
For years the EU has imposed restrictive measures on Belarus for what it said were repeated human rights violations, electoral fraud and crackdowns on the opposition.
The situation was so bad that three years ago, then German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the reign of Lukashenko "the last dictatorship in the heart of Europe."
For the past year though, the EU has centered its displeasure on Lukashenko's neighbor Vladimir Putin as it imposed economic sanctions and visa bans and assets freezes on several high-level officials for Russia's involvement with rebels in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea peninsula.
At the same time, the EU wants to draw Belarus somewhat nearer to the fold, despite its continuing crackdown on dissent and independent media.
"We see a more positive atmosphere there now," said an EU official, who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Minsk.
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