EU will suspend Belarus sanctions

European Union ministers have agreed to suspend sanctions against Belarus following Sunday’s landslide re-election win by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU decision, announced Monday by French European Affairs Minister Harlem Desir, came just weeks after Lukashenko unexpectedly ordered the release of six high-profile political dissidents that his administration had jailed in recent years. Those releases were widely interpreted as overtures to the West, aimed at ending years of Western sanctions spawned by Lukashenko’s harsh treatment of opposition leaders and activists during his two decades in office.

The EU sanctions officially come up for renewal October 31, and EU officials say the plan is to extend and then immediately suspend them through February.

Desir, speaking in Brussels, said the sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, could be reinstated “immediately, if that is required.”

Earlier Monday, Lukashenko was officially declared the winner of a fifth term as president, after winning nearly 84 percent of Sunday’s vote. He faced nominal opposition from two pro-government parties and a little-known opposition activist.

Lukashenko’s first overtures to the West came last year when Belarus, a traditional Russian ally, refused to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.  He also opposed Russia’s military role in eastern Ukraine.

In August, he ordered the release of former presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich, who spent nearly five years in prison after his arrest just hours after Lukashenko won a fourth term in 2010. Five other political prisoners were also released.