MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus on Wednesday released the last two prisoners who the West says were held for their political beliefs, opening the door to improved ties with the United States and the European Union.
Sergei Parsyukevich, a businessman jailed in April after protesting against new rules on businesses introduced by President Alexander Lukashenko, said he believed Western pressure had secured his release.
Andrei Kim, another businessman sentenced to a year and a half in jail for attacking a policeman at the protest, was coming home soon, his mother said.
“I believe my release is the result of pressure from the West, pressure from the United States on Belarussian authorities and for that I am very grateful,” said Parsyukevich, sentenced to two and half years for attacking a guard while in detention.
Speaking at a hastily arranged news conference, Parsyukevich said he was probably released by a presidential pardon.
Last week, Alexander Kozulin, the former Soviet state’s most prominent activist, was freed.
“This news comes at a critical time as Belarus prepares for parliamentary elections next month,” said EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in a statement.
“I very much hope the positive momentum will continue and allow the European Union and Belarus to rapidly develop closer relations,” she added.
Lukashenko has tried to improve ties with the West since a row with ally Russia over gas prices, but has been told that the issue of political prisoners was a key stumbling block.
The West has accused Lukashenko of jailing opponents, muzzling the media, breaking up demonstrations and rigging his third re-election in 2006.
The United States and the European Union have banned some Belarussian politicians from travelling to the West.
Belarus ordered the U.S. ambassador to leave this year after Washington placed sanctions on one of the country’s most profitable companies.
U.S. charge d’affaires Jonathan Moore, the most senior U.S. diplomat left in Minsk, agreed, saying: “The most glaring concern has been that of political prisoners and as of today all of them have been released.”
Analysts said the releases were prompted by the conflict between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia — a breakaway region in Georgia — and the defeat of the Georgian troops.
“When the Belarussian authorities saw how Russia rose from its knees and sat in its tanks, they became aware of the need for a greater understanding with the West,” independent political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky told Reuters.
Belarus stayed silent for days after military operations began in Georgia, and only after Russian criticism of its lack of support did Lukashenko praise Moscow for its “quiet and calm reaction”.
But some analysts doubted the releases would prove a real turning point for Belarus.
“For the authorities this is an ideal option — smooth over relations with the West, make some symbolic gestures but keep to their principles,” Klaskovsky said.
Writing by Sabina Zawadzki; Editing by Mike Collett-White