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EU appeals to Belarus to conduct fair elections
[September 15, 2008]

EU appeals to Belarus to conduct fair elections

(Associated Press WorldStream Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) BRUSSELS, Belgium_European Union foreign ministers appealed to Belarusian authorities Monday to conduct free and fair legislative elections later this month.

The 27-nation union is making the conduct of the Sept. 28 parliamentary vote a test of whether authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is serious about democratic reforms. Lukashenko released two political prisoners from jail last month.

The ministers said the conduct of the vote "is another opportunity for Belarus to show its respect for democratic values."

"It is hoped that these elections will ... mark real progress in respecting international and European standards," the 27 foreign ministers said in a statement.

Poland has called on other European Union countries to reward Belarus' recent moves by relaxing some sanctions. But most EU nations want to wait until after the elections to assess whether enough progress has been made to rebuild ties with Belarus.

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the EU was eager to rebuild ties with Belarus. She said EU ministers considered the release of the prisoners "a significant step."

Belarusian authorities released two political prisoners Aug. 20 on orders from Lukashenko, in an effort to improve ties with the West.

The U.S. suspended some economic sanctions against the former Soviet republic two weeks ago after the release of the opposition activists last month.

The EU has largely cut contacts with Belarus, imposing financial sanctions and a travel ban on Lukashenko and other leaders the EU accuses of rigging elections and cracking down on opponents.

To gain the benefits of closer contact with the EU, Belarus would have to allow free elections and meet standards of free speech, human rights, independent media and judiciary.

EU nations froze the assets and funds held in their country by Lukashenko and 35 other top officials in 2006 to protest the president's re-election and crackdown against opposition groups.

The EU has also funded an independent TV and radio broadcast program, which was launched in 2006 to support opposition groups in Belarus.

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