MINSK, Belarus (AP) — The European Union praised Belarus' release of political prisoners as "important progress" in its efforts to improve relations with the West, while the most prominent of those freed described it as a cynical attempt by the authoritarian government to gain access to badly needed Western credits.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko on Saturday evening unexpectedly pardoned all six political prisoners in the former Soviet republic, including former opposition presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich, who spent nearly five years in prison.
He was greeted at the Minsk train station late Saturday by hundreds of supporters chanting "Hero."
"I will continue to fight for a free, independent and European Belarus," the 59-year-old veteran opposition leader said. "They didn't break me in prison, neither with humiliation or isolation. Belarus should overcome the fear and free itself from this dictatorship in the center of Europe."
Statkevich connected his release with the Belarusian government's need for credits to help it survive the economic downturn, saying "the dictatorship ran out of money."
The EU and United States had set the freeing of political prisoners as a condition for easing economic sanctions, which were toughened after Lukashenko's government violently suppressed protests on the night of the 2010 presidential election.
Belarus holds its next presidential election in October, with Lukashenko all but certain to win a fifth term. Statkevich was among those who filed to run against him, but last month election officials turned down his candidacy.
The releases "represent important progress in the efforts toward the improvement of relations between the EU and Belarus," EU officials Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn said in a statement late Saturday. "We now expect the authorities of Belarus to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of full civil and political rights of the released."