(MINSK) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will go to Belarus next week, officials said Tuesday, becoming the first Western leader in years to visit an ex-Soviet republic long considered a pariah by the West.
Word of the visit to take place Monday, first from the Italian ambassador to Belarus and later confirmed by officials in the Belarus foreign ministry, came amid a quickening thaw in Belarus' long-strained relations with the West.
This was underlined again last week when EU foreign ministers agreed to seek improved ties with Belarus, and refrained from enforcing a travel ban on its leaders.
Western foreign ministers have travelled to Minsk over the past year but no Western leader has travelled there at least since Washington branded Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko "the last dictator in Europe" eight years ago.
Experts said they could not recall any Western leader visiting Belarus since Lukashenko first came to power in 1994.
The announcement of Berlusconi's planned visit came from the Italian ambassador to Minsk, Giulio Prigioni, who was quoted by the state news agency Belta and state television.
Belarus foreign ministry officials also told AFP that the visit was planned, though there was no immediate comment from Rome.
"Belarus and Italy... could in the near future make a major breakthrough in mutually-advantageous cooperation, which the upcoming November 30 visit to Minsk of Silvio Berlusconi shows," Prigioni said.
He said Belarus and Italy were at an "important stage" in their relations and had entered "a fundamentally new era of cooperation."
Belarus is located in a strategic pocket of territory between Russia and western European states and is an important transit route for Russian oil and gas shipped to Europe.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was also scheduled to visit Minsk on Friday and the Kremlin has for years sought to fortify bonds with Belarus that were weakened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.