Lithuania readies for visit by Belarus leader Lukashenko

Vilnius - Human rights activists criticized Belorussian President Alexander Lukashenko as the Lithuanian capital prepares for a rare visit by the leader often referred to as 'Europe's last dictator.'

Lukashenko is due to arrive in the Lithuanian capital Tuesday night. He is to meet Wednesday with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and will take part in a Lithuania-Belarus business forum.

Details of Lukashenko's itinerary are being kept secret, as security will be tight for the authoritarian leader's visit.

Speaking to the Lietuvos Rytas newspaper on Tuesday, Lukashenko said he was looking forward to the trip and characterized mutual relations between the two countries as 'excellent.'

He said he was not worried about criticism of his record on human rights and political freedoms.

'Lukashenko is demonized in Lithuania just as in any other European state,' he said.

Lukashenko's visit has been criticized by Lithuanian human rights groups and Belorussian opposition figures.

Belorussian opposition activist Alexander Kozulin said in Vilnius on Monday he had received assurances human rights would be on the agenda when officials meet with Lukashenko.

'It is necessary to distinguish between dialogue with Belarus and cultural exchanges with a dictator. Lukashenko needs to win time and get his hands on money to retain power,' Kozulin told the Baltic News Service.

In the Tuesday newspaper interview, Lukashenko stressed the role land-locked Belarus plays in Lithuania's economy by using its port city of Klaipeda to transport goods. He said he was anticipating a frank exchange of views with his Lithuanian counterpart.

'I'm looking forward to a good meeting with my colleague, the Lithuanian president - there is plenty for us to discuss. We aren't particularly shy characters, and we know what our people expect of us,' he said.

This will be Lukashenko's second foreign trip since a European Union-imposed travel ban was lifted in April. That month he visited Italy and the Vatican with his 5-year-old son, who will also accompany him to Lithuania.

Belarus was included in the EU's Eastern Partnership plan in May.

On September 3, relatives of disappeared political dissidents in Belarus handed a letter to the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk calling for the visit to be cancelled.

'In our opinion, Mr Lukashenko's visit will mean only one thing - the recognition by the Lithuanian Republic of the legitimacy of the current ruling regime, which is still suspected of appalling crimes,' the letter said.



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