Possible thaw between Belarus and West

BELARUS: PRESIDENT ALEXANDER Lukashenko of Belarus, usually a staunch Russian ally, said yesterday that he would not immediately recognise the independence of two rebel Georgian regions nor station weapons on the EU's border to counter a planned US missile defence system, fuelling talk of a possible thaw in relations with the West, writes Daniel McLaughlin

Washington - which has called Belarus Europe's "last dictatorship" - lifted some sanctions on the country last month after it released several opposition activists from jail, and the EU has discussed easing its own restrictions if this month's parliamentary elections are more free and fair than previous ballots.

A country of 10 million people wedged between Russia, Ukraine and EU and Nato members Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, Belarus is a key transit route for energy heading into Europe, and is traditionally a strong supporter of the Kremlin.

However, analysts say that anger at recent fuel price disputes with Moscow, and unease over its military intervention in Georgia, have increased Mr Lukashenko's willingness to deal with Brussels and Washington, which in turn are keen to weaken Russia's hold over its former Soviet dominions.

"A time will come when we will examine this issue in Belarus, just as Russia examined it - in parliament," Mr Lukashenko said of Moscow's decision to recognise the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

He also played down suggestions that the Kremlin would station rockets or other military hardware in Belarus to counter a US missile defence system that is planned for construction in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"I won't take a hawkish position and frighten the West that we will establish air defence systems in Belarus or even nuclear weapons.

"No one is talking about that today," said Mr Lukashenko, who has crushed most opposition and free media during 14 years in power.



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