EU's Solana, Council of Europe rights chief discuss Belarus
The situation of human rights in Belarus topped the agenda on Friday as the European Union's top diplomat and the Council of Europe's human-rights commissioner met in Brussels, dpa reported.
EU High Representative Javier Solana and Council of Europe commissioner Thomas Hammarberg discussed human rights and political freedoms in Belarus, a statement from Solana's office said.
The two men's meeting came a day after Solana paid his first ever visit to Belarus, in a move seen as indicating the growing desire for a rapprochement in Minsk and Brussels.
Solana's visit, which included meetings with President Alexander Lukashenko and opposition leaders, was a "very good day," his spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.
Solana was "very encouraged" by his meeting with Lukashenko and "feels that the president and Belarusian leaders want to engage with the EU," Gallach said.
The EU has had difficult relations with Belarus ever since Lukashenko took power in 1997. In April 2006 the bloc brought in visa bans and froze the assets of top figures including the president.
But in the wake of August's war between Georgia and Russia, both sides have shown signs of wanting to improve the relationship.
After the war, Belarus unexpectedly released its last political prisoners, while the EU decided to suspend most of the sanctions.
EU foreign ministers are set to decide whether to reinstate the sanctions or to continue to suspend them in March or April.
Attention is now focusing on the EU's plans to push for more cooperation with its former-Soviet neighbours in the so-called "Eastern Partnership."
The partnership, to be launched at a summit in Prague on May 7, is intended to boost ties with Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova - plus Belarus if it improves its democratic standards.
Speculation is now rising that the EU intends to invite Lukashenko to the summit in a bid to strengthen Western influence in Belarus.
Lukashenko indicated that he was interested in the partnership, Gallach said.
The EU, based in Brussels, is a largely economic bloc linking countries from Portugal to Poland and Greece. The Council of Europe, based in Strasbourg in France, was founded to protect human rights, and has 47 members stretching as far east as Russia.