Warsaw condemns Belarussian'regression'


POLAND HAS condemned Belarussia’s “self-imposed isolation” after its foreign minister stayed away from two-day EU “eastern partnership” talks in Warsaw yesterday.

The spat with Minsk and growing fears over democratic regression in Ukraine have overshadowed the talks, attended by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, to discuss closer economic and political reform with six EU “eastern neighbours”.

Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko was not invited to the talks, amid ongoing human rights concerns and a 2010 presidential election many view as rigged. An invitation to Belarussian foreign minister Sergei Martynov was rejected in Minsk.

“Ongoing repression makes it impossible to strengthen ties and boost financial aid to Belarus,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, Polish foreign minister. “Poland will be the first country to offer help to Belarus as soon as the country’s authorities learn some respect for its citizens.”

Poland holds the rotating EU presidency, has championed the bloc’s eastward expansion and co-founded the “eastern partnership” process two years ago. But progress has stalled as the Arab Spring in the EU’s “southern” neighbourhood of north Africa has occupied the headlines.

Warsaw hopes the EU can sign an association agreement with Ukraine – a stage before formal accession proceedings – during the Polish presidency.

In private, however, Polish officials concede progress has stalled after the arrest and trial of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko – legal proceedings EU leaders say is politically motivated.

“I have conveyed a strong message to Ukraine which stressed that respect for democratic principles and the rule of law, including the right to fair and independent legal processes, must remain the basis of our future relations,” said Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs ahead of the summit.

Earlier this week, an ethnic Polish journalist was refused permission to leave Belarussia after an appeals court upheld a three-year suspended for allegedly defaming President Lukashenko.

Polish prime minister Donald Tusk has invited civil society leaders – including opposition leaders from Belarussia – to the Warsaw talks with EU leaders.

“It has not been easy to persuade European leaders … that in co-operating with the Belarusian [political] opposition we may create the conditions for possible round table talks in Belarus,” said Mr Tusk.

Mr Kenny will hold bilateral meetings with Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova, and bring EU partners up to date on Ireland’s reform progress.

EU officials say to expect concrete timelines for the completion and initiation of free-trade agreements with some partner countries. A free-trade agreement with Ukraine may be ready by the end of the year. Given the difficult political environment with its eastern neighbours, Polish officials hope practical programmes, such as visa liberalisation, can keep momentum in the eastern partnership. “Unofficially, Poland is very sceptical about the regression of democratic standards in Ukraine but it wants to keep eastern partnership on the agenda with trade agreements,” said Elzbieta Kaca, European project co-ordinator of the Institute of Public Affairs.

“Once you sign trade agreements, countries are bound with the EU. Warsaw just hopes the eastern partnership can survive these hard times.”