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Photograph: freeimages.com/robert_driese

EU foreign ministers decided Monday to lift the bulk of the bloc's sanctions against Belarus, in recognition of democratic progress made by the former Soviet state, paving the way for closer relations

Belarus has been called Europe's last dictatorship, but its dealings with the European Union and the United States have warmed since Minsk's release of political prisoners and the country's contribution to a deal on the Ukraine crisis.

In October, following a broadly democratic presidential election, Brussels suspended travel bans and asset freezes against 170 people - including President Alexander Lukashenko - and three entities until February 29. Washington also offered sanctions relief to nine Belarusian entities.

EU foreign ministers agreed Monday to permanently lift the suspended sanctions once they expire at the end of the month.

"There is an opportunity for EU-Belarus relations to develop on a more positive agenda," they said in a joint statement, acknowledging positive steps taken over the past two years.

The Belarusian Foreign Ministry welcomed the decision - which must now be put into law - as an opportunity to strengthen collaboration and regional stability.

This rapprochement "clearly proves that only dialogue is the most effective tool for settlement of disputes," ministry spokesman Dmitry Mironchik said in a statement.

"This decision marks an important phase on the way towards full normalization of relations and opens new possibilities for broadening comprehensive interaction between Belarus and the EU," the statement added.

The ministers decided, however, to keep an existing arms embargo in place for 12 more months, along with restrictive measures on four people thought to be involved in the disappearance of regime critics 15 years ago.

Despite the recent signs of progress out of Minsk, rights groups worry that serious shortfalls remain in the areas of democracy and human rights, including the existence of the death penalty, a practice opposed by the EU.

Member states had been divided over the best course of action, with some believing that sanctions relief will improve the situation in Belarus, while others preferred to retain some leverage over Minsk.

"This is clearly not a rosy or perfect picture, far from that," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, adding that ministers had "agreed on a critical engagement - where some might underline more the critical, some might underline more the engagement."

"I think that what we have on the table today is a good compromise," added Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, whose country had lobbied for keeping sanctions in place.

The remaining measures will make it easier to ratchet up pressure on Minsk if the situation deteriorates again, an EU diplomat noted on condition of anonymity.

Belarus is one of six former Soviet states with whom the EU has sought closer relations, under its Eastern Partnership programme.

The policy has strained relations with Russia, notably in the case of Ukraine where the attempt to forge closer ties between Brussels and Kiev triggered the country's current crisis.

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