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Belarus boycotts summit in human rights clash with EU

01 october 2011, 12:39
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Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko. ©RIA Novosti
Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko. ©RIA Novosti
Belarus boycotted a key European Union summit with ex-Soviet states Friday after EU leaders slapped down authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko for throwing hundreds of opponents behind bars, AFP reports.

The chair of the Belarus delegation at the summit table stood empty after leaders attending the Eastern Partnership closed the door on new trade and aid deals with Minsk until Lukashenko ended his heavy-handed crackdown against regime dissidents.

With the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon looking on, Polish premier Donald Tusk said talks were "opening unfortunately without everyone. The Belarus delegation is absent."

Slammed during the turmoil of the Arab Spring for propping up dictatorships, the 27-nation bloc in a policy U-turn has pledged to condition future ties with its neighbours on respect for democracy, rule of law and human rights.

Belarus is one of six ex-Soviet states in the Eastern Partnership with the EU set up two years ago to offer better trade, more aid, visa-free travel, and eventually EU membership, to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

But Lukashenko could not attend the summit as he is under an EU travel ban due to human rights abuse by the Minsk regime. And EU leaders warned in Warsaw they were slamming the door on deals with Belarus failing democratic progress.

Running out of patience, Tusk said Thursday that "there will be no gestures made to the Belarussian regime without the release of all political prisoners."

"There will be no concessions," he added, after joining EU president Herman Van Rompuy in an unprecedented meeting in Warsaw with Belarussian dissidents just ahead of the summit, aimed at strengthening ties between the EU and its eastern neighbours.

Van Rompuy said Europe "cannot reengage fully without clear progress towards democratisation and respect for human rights.

The Belarussian foreign ministry complained in a statement that the country was being victimised, with Lukashenko not invited and its head of delegation -- an ambassador -- "restricted in attending the events of the summit".

"These actions represent a blatant violation of the basic principles of the Eastern Partnership," Belarus said. "In such conditions participation is not possible as a partnership cannot be based on discrimination."

Diplomats told AFP that protocol prevented the ambassador from attending a closed-door dinner with heads of state and government.

Poland, which has outlined a carrot-and-stick offer for fresh EU trade and aid deals to cash-strapped Belarus, said it regretted that Lukashenko "is isolating a nation of 10 million people from beneficial cooperation with Europe."

A diplomat who asked not to be identified said Lukashenko would have to begin dialogue with the opposition, amnesty and rehabilitate political prisoners, and hold free elections to win financial aid, better trade terms, and access to European banks, the EBRD and EIB.

The EU has slapped a travel ban and assets freeze on 192 people and is mulling economic sanctions to protest the regime's crackdown following the December 2010 re-election of Lukashenko -- in office since 1994 -- in a ballot the opposition and Western observers allege was marred by fraud.

"We continue to monitor the situation and stand ready to react as appropriate," Van Rompuy added.

The Ukraine trial of ex Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko -- a bitter rival of Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych -- too is holding up Kiev's ambitions for better trade and visa ties with the EU.

The EU has made an association agreement with Ukraine conditional on a resolution of the Tymoshenko case which is in keeping with democratic principles.

Part of the EU's 2004 "big-bang" expansion from 15 members, Poland, which took the six-month rotating helm of the EU in July, hopes to strengthen links between the bloc and fellow countries from behind the former Iron Curtain.

The announcement of the opening of talks on EU association agreements -- a first step to membership -- with Moldova and Georgia is expected in Warsaw.

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