LONDON, March 9 (Reuters) - Belarus must carry out more political reforms before the European Union will agree to closer ties, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said on Monday before a visit to Minsk.
Ferrero-Waldner said she would visit Belarus for the first time on Friday for talks with leaders there.
It is the second visit in a month to Minsk by a top EU official after the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, went there last month.
Belarus is trying to end its international isolation over accusations of human rights violations and electoral abuses.
She said there was an opportunity for Belarus, if it chose to grasp it. “And this is the chance to come closer to the European Union,” she said, speaking at the Chatham House thinktank in London.
“We do see the chance to get Belarus closer to us and we would like to do a lot.”
She said the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy and Eastern Partnership scheme, which grant benefits to the EU’s eastern neighbours, should “reach out to Belarus”.
“But for that to happen, we want to see more of the political reforms,” she said.
At the moment, she said, the reform process in the ex-Soviet state was “two steps forward, one step back”.
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has been walking a narrow line between keeping good relations with traditional ally Russia and developing better ties with the West, especially after a row with Moscow in 2006 over gas prices.
“We are content to see that political prisoners have been released, but we are not content at seeing that others now have been again circumscribed and also put under arrest,” Ferrero-Waldner said.
“On the other hand, some NGOs (non-governmental organisations) have now been registered, some newspapers now can be printed — opposition newspapers. All of these are good steps (but) we want to see more systemic changes,” she said.
The EU initiated the Eastern Partnership scheme after Russia’s brief war with Georgia last year. It offers financial aid, easier travel and conditional free trade pacts to Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, but not Russia. EU officials have suggested Belarus could qualify for the scheme if it pushes ahead with democratic reforms.
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU’s 27 member states would approve the European Commission’s Eastern Partnership proposals next week. (Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Alison Williams)