MINSK, Belarus – Belarus released a prominent opposition activist from prison Sunday, a move that suggested the authoritarian government is responding to pressure from Western sanctions aimed at curtailing its repression of dissent.
Dmitry Bondarenko's wife, Olga, said he had phoned her in the morning to say he'd been freed. Bondarenko had helped run the election campaign of former opposition presidential candidate, Andrei Sannikov, who also was freed over the weekend.
Both men were arrested along with about 700 others in December 2010 after police broke up a massive protest rally hours after voting ended in a presidential election that saw incumbent strongman Alexander Lukashenko win a new term. The demonstrators had been protesting alleged vote fraud. Western countries and monitors have called the vote deeply flawed.
Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison and Bondarenko received a two-year sentence on charges of staging mass riots.
Their release followed a series of new U.S. and European Union sanctions in recent months aimed at convincing Lukashenko to end repression of the opposition and to free political prisoners in the country of 10 million. As part of the pressure, the EU also recently recalled its ambassadors from Belarus.
Lukashenko — dubbed Europe's last dictator by critics — has been in office since 1994, relentlessly stifling dissent and independent media while preserving a quasi-Soviet economy with about 80 percent of industry in state hands.
Some observers believe that by releasing opposition activists, he is seeking to mend ties with the West in order to build more room to maneuver in relations with his main sponsor and ally, Russia. Lukashenko depends on Moscow for subsidies, but has accused the Kremlin in the past of angling to erode his nation's sovereignty and grab its economic assets.
"Lukashenko is sending a clear signal to the West about his desire to improve ties," said Alexander Klaskovsky, an independent Minsk-based political analyst. "Minsk is shifting back to the past policy of bargaining and balancing between the West and the Kremlin."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the release of Sannikov and Bondarenko, hailing them as "prominent symbols for the tireless work and commitment of many for a democratic and European Belarus."
"I call on the authorities of Belarus to release unconditionally now also all other remaining political prisoners and to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of their civil and political rights," Ashton said in Sunday's statement. "This would certainly contribute to possibilities for moving towards improved relations between the EU and Belarus."
Belarusian rights activists say 10 opposition activists, including ex-presidential candidate Nikolai Statkevich are still in prison on political charges.