Belarus leader says he won't be forced into reforms

Police break up opposition protest, arrest 20


Police prevent a photographer from taking pictures during a rally in remembrance of missing politicians, businessmen and journalists in Minsk, Belarus, yesterday.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said yesterday he would not be forced into reforms by the EU as he seeks better relations with the West.

Once dubbed Europe's last dictator by a former US administration, Mr Lukashenko said Belarus would not choose between the EU or Russia, but aimed to be a bridge between the two.

"I want the Europeans to understand, and I am saying this in an EU member state, that no one can make us bend, no one can force us to do anything," he told an economic forum in Lithuania, the second EU country he has visited since a travel ban was lifted.

He railed at a ?60 ($88) charge for an EU visa for Belarussians. "If you don't like Lukashenko, target him, not the Belarus nation," he said, adding that Belarus also wants the EU to restore preferential import tariffs. Meanwhile police in Belarus yesterday broke up an opposition rally and arrested about 20 people in the capital Minsk, a Reuters witness said.

About 40 activists gathered on the city's main square to mark the anniversary of the 1999 disappearance of opposition activist Viktor Gonchar, some holding placards reading: "We Remember."

After 10 minutes riot police began to break up the protest, dragging activists into nearby vans and blocking journalists trying to cover the rally.

More than 20 people protesting against joint military exercises with Russia were detained at a rally in Minsk last week, after several months during which activists say police had become less aggressive.

The EU wants Belarus to change electoral laws, allow free registration of civic organisations and guarantee media freedom. The bloc imposed a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko for alleged vote-rigging in 2006, but froze sanctions last year as a reward for freeing political prisoners.

Mr Lukashenko visited Italy in April, his first official trip to the West since the mid-1990s.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told Mr Lukas-henko he must make progress on human rights and democracy if he wants the EU to permanently lift sanctions, which are currently suspended, her spokesman said.

Lithuanian news website Alfa quoted an aide to Ms Grybauskaite as saying she listed five areas where the EU wants Belarus to make progress, including the right to public gatherings and changes to electoral law.



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