BRUSSELS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The European Union and United States said on Thursday they would temporarily ease some sanctions on Belarus after its release of political prisoners and what some regard as an easing of repression in the close Russian ally.
The European Union said it will suspend its sanctions on Belarus for four months from Saturday, including those on authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, making good on its promise to reward a perceived opening up to Europe.
Lukashenko's pardoning of jailed political prisoners and a perceived lack of repression after the re-election this month of a man whom the United States once said runs Europe's last "dictatorship", influenced the EU's approach, diplomats said.
In a statement confirming the decision, the European Union noted "the context of improving EU-Belarus relations".
EU governments have "suspended for four months the asset freeze and travel ban applying to 170 individuals and the asset freeze applying to three entities in Belarus," said the Council of the European Union, which is akin to an EU senate.
Separately, the U.S. Treasury said that from Saturday it would allow most transactions with nine sanctioned entities in Belarus for the next six months.
It named the nine as Belarusian Oil Trade House, Belneftekhim, Belneftekhim USA, Inc, Belshina OAO, Grodno Azot OAO, Grodno Khimvolokno OAO, Lakokraska OAO, Naftan OAO and Polotsk Steklovolokno OAO.
In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States was taking the step "in light of the positive move by the Belarusian government to release all six of its political prisoners on Aug. 22."
He said the step "opens the door to expanded commercial ties" and he encouraged the government to do more "to improve its record with respect to human rights and democracy."
While Belarus, a close Russian ally, is still far short of carrying out democratic reforms, the U.S. and EU's strategy marks a new approach to engage rather than isolate Minsk and other EU neighbours in central and eastern Europe.
The EU move to suspend the sanctions will be published in the EU's Official Journal on Friday, taking effect on Saturday, as first reported by Reuters earlier this month.
An arms embargo will remain and four members of Lukashenko's security services, suspected of being behind the disappearances of political opponents, will remain under sanctions.
The situation will be reviewed at the end of February and could be re-imposed if the EU sees a deterioration in human rights, the rule of law and press freedoms.
The Belarussian companies targeted by sanctions will now be eligible for financing from the European Investment Bank. Ending other curbs that block Belarus from European capital markets, export credit insurance or EU technical assistance mean Russia is no longer the only source of financing for Belarus.
EU officials acknowledge that their policy to promote democracy in the bloc's six former Soviet bloc neighbours has had only limited success.
The EU feels it needs a new approach, in part to win partners and counter what it sees as a newly aggressive Russia which annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in 2014. Lukashenko, in power for 21 years, also appears keen to balance his alliances.
Reporting by Robin Emmott; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Richard Balmforth