BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union may suspend sanctions on Belarus, following the release of political prisoners there earlier this year, an EU official said on Friday, signaling what could be the end of the nine-year-long international isolation for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The official, who was not authorized to issue public statements and spoke on condition of anonymity, said ambassadors from the 28 EU member nations had reached an "agreement in principle," and that "the most restrictive measures" against Belarus could be suspended temporarily by the end of October. However, a formal decision remains to be made, and will take into account of how the presidential vote unfolds on Sunday, the official said.
The EU official said the bloc could further review the restrictive measures targeting Belarus in four months as well as consider increasing cooperation with Minsk.
Lukashenko, who is running for re-election, was slapped with an EU and U.S. travel ban in 2006 when a presidential candidate was jailed. The 2010 presidential election ended in a big opposition rally and lengthy prison sentences for most of the candidates who opposed Lukashenko who had been in office since 1994.
One candidate, Nikolai Statkevich, spent nearly five years in prison until Lukashenko unexpectedly pardoned him in August along with all five other remaining political prisoners. Their release was seen as an effort to improve relations with the West.
Along with the travel ban for Lukashenko and several Belarusian officials, the EU and the U.S. has blacklisted several major state-owned companies including an oil refinery.
Lukashenko took the first step to exit the international isolation last year when Belarus, Russia's closest ally, refused to recognize Moscow's annexation of Crimea or support Russia's actions in eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed rebels have been fighting government forces.
Lukashenko also helped to broker peace talks between Russia and Ukraine last year, which the European Union applauded.