EU to suspend Zimbabwe sanctions 'after referendum'

Zimbabwe's President Robert pictured on 14 July 2012 President Robert Mugabe has been in a power-sharing deal following disputed elections in 2008

The European Union is to suspend most sanctions against Zimbabwe once it has held a credible referendum on a new constitution, EU foreign ministers say.

This would make an "important milestone" towards holding democratic elections, their statement said.

More than a 100 key individuals have been covered under an EU travel ban and assets freeze imposed in 2002.

But sanctions would remain against President Robert Mugabe, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

The sanctions were originally imposed a decade ago in response to human rights abuses and political violence.

Mr Mugabe and his rival, Prime Minster Morgan Tsvangirai, have been sharing power since disputed elections marred by violence in 2008.

Fresh elections are expected to be held sometime next year, after the referendum on the new constitution.

Allies of Mr Mugabe have long argued that the sanctions should be unconditionally removed and that they have had a negative impact on Zimbabwe's economy.

'Important step-change'

In theory, everyone in Zimbabwe wants the EU sanctions lifted. President Mugabe's Zanu-PF has, for many years, furiously blamed them for Zimbabwe's economic collapse.

The former opposition Movement for Democratic Change has always ridiculed that notion - but mostly in private these days. The MDC knows that - while the West's "restrictive measures" may have put useful pressure on President Mugabe's inner circle - any advantage has long been outweighed by the domestic propaganda victories that Zanu-PF has scored as a result of the "colonial" measures.

But those very real propaganda victories are now prompting some diplomats and observers to suspect that hardliners in Zanu-PF do not want the sanctions lifted - that they are too useful as a campaign issue. Zanu-PF - increasingly riven by factionalism - may struggle to unite behind the strategy, but it is thought that some figures close to President Mugabe may try to derail the constitutional process in order to avoid the possibility of defeat in free and fair elections.

There are a lot of ifs and buts in all of this, but after a rocky but resilient four-year political truce, it is clear that Zimbabwe is moving with accelerating momentum towards another, potentially dangerous climax.

"The EU agrees that a peaceful and credible constitutional referendum would represent an important milestone in the preparation of democratic elections that would justify a suspension of the majority of all EU targeted restrictive measures against individuals and entities," the EU foreign ministers' statement said.

It also welcomed the commitment of regional bloc the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) to resolving the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

Mr Hague said the decision was an "important step-change in the EU's approach to Zimbabwe".

"This approach will demonstrate to reformers across the political spectrum that the EU is serious about responding to concrete progress on the ground," he said.

"It also puts the onus on the government of Zimbabwe to live up to their commitments. These decisions will be kept under constant review and if the situation deteriorates, we will of course not hesitate to respond appropriately."

Reacting to the news, Mr Mugabe's camp were still defiant, pushing for the unconditional lifting of sanctions.

Pro-Mugabe MP Bright Matonga, who is subject to a travel ban, said the sanctions were illegal but did not bother him.

"They were never endorsed by the United Nations," he told the BBC's Focus on Africa.

"I don't wish to go to the US or Europe. Honestly, I don't give a damn."

In February, the EU lifted some of its sanctions against top Zimbabwean officials, to support what it said was the power-sharing government's "significant progress" on tackling the country's economic crisis.

The BBC's Africa correspondent Andrew Harding says the new constitution should make it much harder for President Mugabe's supporters - or anyone else - to rig elections.

But there is still a great deal of concern that hardliners in Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party may try to derail the entire process, he says.

For years they have blamed Western sanctions for Zimbabwe's economic collapse; if those sanctions vanish - they lose one of their main rallying cries, our reporter says.

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