Latvia, Lithuania hail release of Belarussian opposition leader

(RIGA) - Latvia and Lithuania on Monday hailed the release of jailed opposition leader Alexander Kozulin in Belarus, but said it was only one move towards improving their ex-Soviet neighbour's ties with the West.

In a statement, Latvia's foreign ministry noted that freeing Kozulin was just "one of the steps that the European Union urged Belarus to take for the facilitation of a mutual dialogue".

In Vilnius, Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas said in a statement that Lithuania welcomed the release and hoped that "other political prisoners will also be freed in the nearest future".

"It would give a serious impetus for Belarus to normalise relations with the Euro-Atlantic community," he said.

Kozulin was released Saturday after serving part of a five-and-a-half-year sentence after protesting against alleged corruption in a 2006 election that returned President Alexander Lukashenko to power.

Kozulin, who had stood against Lukashenko in the 2006 election, had already been freed for three days in February to attend his wife's funeral, after he went on hunger strike.

Lukashenko has been branded "Europe's last dictator" in Western countries for what they say is his authoritarian regime and poor human rights record, and Belarus is subject to sanctions by the 27-nation EU and the United States.

However, as his previously solid ties with Russia grow frosty, he has been seeking to improve his image in the West.

A test case for Lukashenko will be the parliamentary elections on September 28. Past polls have been criticised in the West as rigged.

Lukashenko came to power in 1994, three years after Belarus became independent as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Latvia and Lithuania, which border Belarus, were also part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

They have followed a very different path from their neighbour since independence, and are anchored firmly in the West, having joined the EU and NATO in 2004.



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