MINSK - Hundreds of Belarussians from the opposition gathered Saturday in the capital Minsk for a "European forum" to encourage closer ties with the European Union, ahead of a meeting in Brussels next week.
"Belarus needs economic, political and social modernising, and our principal partner of course is the EU", said the leader of the main opposition party Movement for Liberty, Alexander Milinkevitch.
EU nations next week will approve talks on boosting cooperation with Belarus, and refrain from enforcing a travel ban on its leaders, according to EU officials.
The pro-European Belarussians gathered with EU flags in the suburb of Minsk with the aim to summarise their objectives and appealed to Belarussian authorities to respect their civil liberties.
In a video-recorded message to the forum, former Czech president Vaclav Havel said he was "sure that sooner or later we will welcome our Belarussian friends into the EU".
Many participants said the very staging of the forum showed progress compared with the situation two or three years ago, when President Alexander Lukashenko's regime clamped-down hard on all opposition.
Lukashenko, once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by the United States, has ruled the ex-Soviet republic of 10 million people since 1994 but has made recent attempts at greater openness including hiring a Western PR firm and cautious economic reform.
Milinkevitch describes the changes in society as "cosmetic", except for the release of political prisoners, but told AFP that "even though there is an authoritarian regime, we want to engage in proper relations with the EU".
"In Belarus the number of people who want to see their country in the EU is rising and this forum represents these people", said the deputy of Movement for Liberty, Viktar Karneyenka.
"We want to take part in the development of a strategy for EU-Belarussian relations", Karneyenka said, emphasising they must not "be content to observe the dialogue between Belarus and the EU. We must participate in it".
Many European representatives were present at the forum, including Polish member of the European parliament Jacek Protasiewicz, who said "Belarus needs Europe, but the EU needs Belarus as well". -- AFP