Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko has defended his isolated country’s human rights record during a visit to Austria on Tuesday, as he sought closer ties with the European Union amid tensions with Russia.
On his first trip to an EU member state in more than three years, Lukashenko met Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen. Austria’s former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz visited Belarus in March.
Often described by its critics in the West as “Europe’s last dictatorship”, Belarus has been the target of Western sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections. The 65-year-old Lukashenko has rarely travelled elsewhere in Europe.
In recent years, however, the West and Belarus have sought to improve ties as the Kremlin pushed for a closer relationship between Moscow and Minsk.
Lukashenko said his country was “wedged in like in a pair of pliers” between the East and the West.
“Despite this, we are doing sometimes very well,” Lukashenko told reporters during a joint news conference with Van der Bellen.
Asked about his country’s human rights record, he said: “It is a country where one can relax in peace and security.”
Van der Bellen said the two leaders discussed many issues, including the Ukraine crisis, as they hoped to “deepen” their relationship.
Austria also recommended that Belarus, the only European country that still uses capital punishment, should at least put a moratorium on the death penalty.
Belarus’s closest ally is Russia and the two have formed a nominal “union”, with close trade and military cooperation.
In recent months, however, Moscow has been pressuring Minsk into more integration. While Lukashenko has welcomed closer ties with Moscow, he has pushed back at the idea of an outright unification.
Moscow has denied it wants unification. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said it was “normal” for Minsk to have contacts with other countries.
Karin Kneissl, who was the foreign minister under Kurz’s previous administration, said in January that Austria wanted to develop closer ties with Belarus as a “buffer state” between Russia, the EU and Ukraine.
For Lukashenko, being hosted by an EU member represents a “diplomatic success” before parliamentary elections on Sunday, political analyst Artyom Shraibman said.
Lukashenko said in September he also wanted to improve ties with Washington as he welcomed the then US National Security Adviser John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk.
The Soviet-era collective farm chief became Belarus’s first post-independence president in 1994 and has dominated the country ever since.
In 2016, Lukashenko visited Italy and the Vatican after the EU lifted most of the sanctions it had imposed in recent years against him and other Belarusians in a move to encourage progress on human rights.
Since then, Lukashenko has repeatedly been invited to visit Europe, but had declined offers until now.
After Russia, Austria is one of Belarus’s biggest sources of foreign direct investment. Belarus media labelled it “the most loyal” of EU members to Minsk.
Lukashenko has been in Austria privately, skiing with his family in 2002. Kurz presented him with a pair of hand-made wooden skis during his March visit to Belarus.