LUXEMBOURG (AP) — The European Union on Monday moved closer to suspending sanctions on Belarus following the central European nation's release of political prisoners and a weekend election that was more transparent and calm than previous polls.
France's Europe Minister, Harlem Desir, said Monday's foreign affairs meeting had a provisional commitment that for the next four months the EU would "suspend the sanctions, but that can be put in place again immediately if it proves justified."
If fully enacted, that could signal a major step in ending nine years of international diplomatic isolation for authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
"There is a common view to change the relations with Belarus," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Desir said the 28-nation bloc could further review the restrictive measures as well as consider increasing cooperation with Lukashenko's government.
Lukashenko, who on Monday was declared the winner of a fifth term as president following an election boycotted by the opposition, was slapped with an EU and U.S. travel ban in 2006 when a presidential candidate was jailed. Then the country's 2010 presidential election ended in lengthy prison sentences for most of the candidates who opposed Lukashenko, who has 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 the government's relations with the West.
Along with the travel ban for Lukashenko and several officials, the EU and the U.S. has blacklisted several major state-owned companies, including an oil refinery.
Lukashenko took the first step toward ending his country's 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.