Belarus wants strategic partnership with EU: Lukashenko

(VILNIUS) - Belarus's strongman President Alexander Lukashenko said Wednesday he wants to forge a new strategic partnership with the European Union in the latest sign of a thawing in once frosty ties.

"We want to be a good and strategic partner of the European Union," Lukashenko said on a visit to Lithuania, one of the EU's newest members which, like Belarus, is a former Soviet state.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in an authoritarian fashion since 1994 and was once famously dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington.

But in the past year, the EU has switched to a policy of engagement, widely seen as an effort to pull Belarus out of Russia's orbit. It lifted a travel ban on Lukashenko last October and then brought the country into its Eastern Partnership plan.

The visit was the first made by Lukashenko to an EU state following the inking in May of the partnership accord.

"Our move towards better relations with the European Union is clearly visible," Lukashenko said at the start of a Lithuania-Belarus economic forum in the capital Vilnius.

While ties with the EU have been improving, Lukashenko's traditionally close relationship with Russia has been strained with the president recently accusing Moscow of dragging its feet on a loan to his cash-strapped.

Lukashenko however said that he did not intend to turn his back on Moscow.

"I want Europeans to understand: you cannot force us to do what you want. We are an educated people. We know what to do and how to do it," he said.

"Belarus has normal links with Russia, why should we have to abandon them? We do not choose our neighbours. We want to be your friends, the friends of Russia and to be in Europe."

The president however did criticise the 60 euro cost of visas for entry into the EU's Schengen zone, a relatively high price for Belarusians.

During his visit, Lukashenko also met with his Lithuanian counterpart Dalia Grybauskaite.

"Ms Grybauskaite spoke openly and clearly about the position of the European Union and Lithuania regarding human rights in Belarus, freedom for the press and political organisations," said Linas Balsys, a spokesman for Grybauskaite.



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