German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) and Swedish Foreign minister Margot Wallstrom (L).jpg
Photograph: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

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 and three entities until February 29. Washington also offered sanctions relief to nine Belarusian entities.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed 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.

However, an arms embargo is to remain in place for twelve 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.

"I think that what we have on the table today is a good compromise," said 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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