October 9, 2015 / 7:49 AM / 2 years ago

Exclusive: EU set to suspend Belarus sanctions for four months after vote

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The European Union flag is seen in front of the parliament building during a Pro-Euro rally in Athens, Greece, July 9, 2015.Yannis Behrakis

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will lift its sanctions on Belarus, including those on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, for four months after Sunday's vote, barring any last-minute crackdown, diplomatic sources said.

EU foreign ministers will on Monday welcome the elections if peaceful, although a formal decision on the asset freezes and travel bans will come later in October, diplomats said.

The overture comes as the bloc seeks to respond to Lukashenko's pardoning of six jailed political prisoners in August and hosting of peace talks for Ukraine in February.

Those moves have cemented a perception among EU officials that Lukashenko, a close ally of Moscow known in the West as Europe's "last dictator", is opening up Belarus to Europe.

"The consensus is finally there and now it is just a formal decision to be taken toward the end of October, assuming Lukashenko doesn't organize a clampdown on political dissent after the elections," said one senior EU diplomat.

Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will report back to the European Union following the vote.

In a rare concession to protests, Lukashenko has also questioned whether Russia should be building a military air base in Belarus. The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded on Thursday to a Belarusian author critical of both Lukashenko and Russia, underscoring Europe's desire to support independent voices.

New Approach

Diplomats say the EU's list of around 140 individuals will be suspended from the end of October until the end of February, allowing those in question to move their money around and travel again. An arms embargo will remain.

However, the European Union will keep the sanctions under review. The suspensions could be allowed to expire if Belarus is seen as committing fresh rights abuses.

Four members of Lukashenko's security services, suspected of being behind the disappearances of political opponents, will remain under sanctions.

The lifting of sanctions could mark a new phase in EU diplomacy that is less about preaching EU values and more about finding partners, following the failure of its European Neighborhood Policy launched in 2003. The policy has not stabilized or democratized the EU's surroundings.

Lukashenko, shaken by the war in eastern Ukraine, is keen to explore ways to balance his alliances. He also wants to boost his economy, which is exposed to the recession in Russia and shrank by 4 percent in the January-July period.

Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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