Belarus aims to come in from cold

Isolated country looks to improve ties with EU after energy row with Russia.

    Lukashenko will need a visa ban lifting before he can talk further with the EU [AP]

    "Until now the West has constantly kicked us in the back. Now the time has come to weigh new possibilities for cooperation. Let's start an open, honest dialogue."

    Since gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus has pursued a pro-Russian foreign policy, closely aligning itself with Moscow.

    European nations have criticised Belarus for its weak democracy, statist economy and limits of freedom of speech, and have taken measures intended to encourage the country to reform.

    'Last dictatorship'

    Belarus is one of the only European states that has not gained admission to the 46-nation Council of Europe, which describes itself as a defender of human rights, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

    Lukashenko and other senior government officials have also been subject to a visa ban in the EU since last March after what was seen in the West as rigged presidential elections.

    The US has previously described Belarus as Europe's "last dictatorship".

    Lukashenko's apparent willingness to now come in from the diplomatic cold and engage with the EU comes after chairman of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of  Europe, Rene van der Linden, said on a visit to Minsk last week that the former Soviet republic should do just that.

    "I want Belarus to look like Germany or Sweden one day"

    Alexander Lukashenko

    It also comes after a serious dispute with Russia, Belarus's main ally, which has helped maintain Lukashenko’s 12-year grip on power.

    But after years of handouts from Moscow, the two neighbours fell out recently over gas supplies.

    Lukashenko, unhappy that Russia was cutting cheap energy supplies to Belarus, introduced a transit duty on Russian oil flowing to Europe across his territory.

    Economic damage

    Russia responded by turning off the pipeline through Belarus, disrupting supplies to some EU countries.

    The dispute was resolved with Lukashenko having to accept a twofold rise in the price of gas his country imports from Russia and an end to tax-free imports of Russian oil, both of which are big blows for the Belarus economy.

    Kremlin officials say they suspect that Lukashenko may now try to court the EU in the hope that it can bail out his economy.

    However, the president said it was up to the EU to make the first move in any future dialogue.

    "The West should begin by lifting the practically medieval ban on Belarussian politicians traveling to Europe. We can't shout at each other across a fence," he said.

    SOURCE: Agencies


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