By VALENTINA POP
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko (C) receives bread- and-salt as he attends the Dazhynki harvest festival in the town of Gorki, some 270 km (168 miles) east of Minsk.
Belarus may get the first step towards a visa-free regime with the EU if it releases political prisoners in time for an Eastern Partnership summit in May, senior officials from the Latvian EU presidency have said.
Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics last week said there are some "new openings" with Belarus and that there is a prospect of starting talks on a visa-free regime with the EU.
It would be a breakthrough in EU-Belarus relations, which remain all-but frozen under the authoritarian regime of president Alexander Lukanshenko, who jailed scores of dissidents after his rigged re-election in 2010.
Rinkevics, whose country borders Belarus, said that starting talks on visa liberalisation would "also address civil liberties concerns we have".
But according to Andrejs Pildegovics, state secretary in the Latvian foreign ministry, releasing the remaining political prisoners is key to a positive decision.
"We will not review our stance on political prisoners. They have to be freed, three remain behind bars at this moment. We continue to pressure Belarus on their liberation and the same goes for the treatment of minorities," Pildegovics said on Friday (9 January) in Riga.
Twenty years of zero progress
He added, that with presidential elections coming up in autumn in Belarus, it will also be important for Lukashenko to allow rivals to mount a challenge him and for the elections to respect international standards.
"Hopefully we can see some progress by May. On the EU-level we had a long 20 years of zero progress - it’s worse than hibernation”, Pildegovics said.
He noted that the months following Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Belarus has become increasingly interested in better relations with the EU, especially on economic co-operation.
"But before we deliver in a consistent way, they have to deliver on human rights issues”, he said.
Juris Poikans, a Latvian diplomat in charge of the EU's Eastern Partnership policy on closer ties with former Soviet states, which includes Belarus, told this website that the single biggest issue in visa liberalisation is whether to include diplomatic passport holders in the first stage of the visa-free talks.
"They want to have the same format as Azerbaijan and Armenia, who started visa liberalisation talks. But in the case of Belarus, we'd have to change the mandate, as it currently does not include diplomatic passport holders," he said.
Poikans said that compared to two years ago, when the Lithuanian EU presidency also sought to resume ties with Belarus, "the contacts now between the EU and Belarus have become more intensive."
"Belarus wants to be represented at the Riga summit at the highest possible level," Poikans said, pointing to the potential presence of Lukashenako, who is on an EU blacklist, at the event.
Belarus in recent months has been feeling the squeeze from the Russian economic meltdown, triggered by EU sanctions and a falling oil price.
Last week, the Belarusian central bank lowered the value of the Belarus rouble by around seven percent compared to the US dollar, after a weakening of 20 percent in 2014.
Belarus also imposed capital controls and said that all exports to Russia - mainly trucks and industrial machinery - will be carried out in dollars or euros.
Even though it has signed up to a customs union with Russia and Kazakhstan, Belarus last autumn circumvented a Russian ban on EU dairy and meat by re-exporting Latvian, Polish and Lithuanian products to Russia under Belarusian labels.
In December, Moscow caught on to the practice and banned all Belarusian food imports, prompting an angry reaction from Minsk.
Lukashenko also sacked his prime minister, central bank governor and top ministers in late December after they failed to deliver on his promise that Belarus will be safe from the Russian economic woes.
Meanwhile, it took a step back on minority rights.
Lukashenko's government recently passed legal changes that ban local officials from applying or holding the Polish Card - a document issued by the Polish foreign ministry for people of Polish descent living in former Soviet republics but unable to obtain dual citizenship.
The Polish card allows its holders to obtain visas and work permits in Poland. Belarusian MPs, public workers, soldiers and rescue workers are also banned from applying for this card and they have to give it back if they already received it.
According to Polish news agency PAP, up until 15 May 2014, Polish consulates had received around 140,000 applications for the Polish Card, with around 110,000 cards being issued.
Most of the cards were issued in Belarus (63,000) and Ukraine (60,000) and some 7,500 in the Baltic states.