European Union Temporarily Suspends Travel Ban for Belarussian Leader

BRUSSELS — Belarus, which is often described as the last dictatorship in Europe, emerged from the diplomatic deep freeze Monday when the European Union temporarily lifted a travel ban on the country’s president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko.

With ties between the European Union and Russia severely strained over the recent conflict in Georgia, European foreign ministers decided to relax travel restrictions on the Belarussian government in the hope of luring the country away from Moscow’s sphere of influence.

Officially, the move Monday was in response to the recent release of political prisoners by the Belarussian government. But diplomats in Brussels said they thought that the brief war between Georgia and Russia in August might have prompted alarm among Russia’s other neighbors, including Belarus, about their own independence.

Some European governments, however, are skeptical that such fears can be exploited diplomatically, and they doubt that overtures will have a significant effect on the Belarussian government. That caution was reflected in the temporary nature of the concession on the travel ban; it lapses automatically in six months unless there is unanimous support from European Union members to continue it.

The announcement was made before a meeting between foreign ministers from the European Union and Foreign Minister Sergey Martynov of Belarus in Luxembourg on Monday evening, the highest-level contact between the parties in four years.

The United States has not indicated that it plans to match the European overture and lift a similar travel ban on Belarussian leaders.

However, this year the United States welcomed the release of political prisoners and sent the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, David A. Merkel, to the Belarussian capital, Minsk.

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 10 million people, has had a prickly relationship with Europe since Mr. Lukashenko came to power in 1994, imposing a Soviet-style dictatorship that has tended to gravitate toward Russia, with which Belarus shares cultural and linguistic ties.

Still, there has been occasional friction between Russia and Belarus, and as animosity between the West and Russia has intensified in recent months, the European Union has sought to strengthen ties with Belarus.

During the war in Georgia, Mr. Lukashenko did not overtly support his longtime Russian allies. Nor has Belarus followed Russia by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Stephen Castle reported from Brussels, and Michael Schwirtz from Moscow.