By Joanna Sopinska
Halfway through the six-month suspension period of the visa ban against Belarusian officials, the EU says Minsk's current approach is "encouraging," but at the same time emphasises that there is still much work to be done. "Of course, we're halfway, so to say, with Belarus. But we see that they are taking important steps that go in the right direction," Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner, said after talks with Belarusian Foreign Affairs Minister Syarhei Martynau, on 27 January in Brussels.
Commenting on the positive steps Belarus has taken recently, Ferrero-Waldner cited a promise from the Belarusian government to simplify registration procedures for the country's media. The EU has received assurances that independent media outlets will soon need only to notify authorities by mail in order to be registered - a far simpler procedure than the massive documentation currently required.
However, despite pressure from the EU, the country's reform implementation record is not impressive so far. Since the suspension of the visa ban - a clear move taken by the EU to encourage Minsk to turn to Europe following a few years of isolation - the authoritarian regime made only one concrete move. Last November, the Belarusian authorities allowed the printing and distribution of the two independent newspapers, Narodnaia Volia and Nasha Niva (there are 13 independent newspapers still awaiting registration). However, the majority of the outstanding reforms still remain in the sphere of undelivered promises.
Last October, the EU decided to temporary lift visa sanctions against Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and 35 of his officials for half a year, to renew political contacts and open new possibilities for cooperation with the country following the Georgia-Russia war in August. To this end, the EU offered Belarus participation in the Eastern Partnership - a new Eastern-oriented initiative providing for deeper political and economic ties, including free-trade agreements and "in the long run" a visa-free regime, with five other countries in the region (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine).
However, to avoid the sanctions to be revived in April, and consequently to become a fully-fledged member of the Eastern Partnership, to be launched on 7 May in Prague, Belarus has to meet five conditions. These include reform of the electoral code and concrete action to safeguard democratic values, the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms - including those of expression and assembly.
According to experts, not much "concrete" progress has been achieved so far in any of these areas. EU diplomats as well as MEPs note, however, an improved "atmosphere"for EU-Belarusian relations. During a discussion on the situation in Belarus at the European Parliament's most recent plenary session in Strasbourg, MEPs were rather positive about the current developments and argued against the visa ban to be revived, as there were signs, "even if not decisive," that the country was trying to modernise.