Berlusconi, Lukashenko to discuss bilateral economic cooperation

MINSK, November 30 (Itar-Tass) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is arriving in Minsk on an official visit on Monday, the press service of the Belarussian Foreign Ministry reported.

The main issue of Berlusconi's talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko will be the bilateral trade-economic and investment cooperation matters. "Among problems that we will discuss with the Italian premier are first of all economic issues, the creation of the regulatory and legal framework of our relations," Lukashenko said in an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa on the eve of the Italian prime minister's visit.

According to the Belarusian president, the talks will also focus on the bilateral investment cooperation. Lukashenko recalled that Foreign Minister Franco Frattini and other Italian officials that had visited Belarus confirmed that the country has a favourable investment climate and major businessmen are read to invest today in the Belarusian economy.

Alexander Lukashenko particularly noted Italy's role in the development of relations of Belarus with the European Union. "Meetings with the Pope and Italian government head had major importance, they played a big role in our mutual understanding with the European Union," he said.

However, Lukashenko does not think that Berlusconi "is arriving here for some democracy guarantees."

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will become the first Western leader to visit Belarus over the pas decade.

In late April this year, Alexander Lukashenko visited Italy where he met Silvio Berlusconi and was received by the Roman Pontiff.

Observers said that the Belarusian president's visit testified a change for normalisation in the European Union's policy towards Belarus.

It became the first European trip of Alexander Lukashenko after the EU Council made a decision on suspending visa restrictions on the travel of a number of Belarusian officials, including Belarusian president, to EU countries.

EU-Belarus mutual relations were initially established after the European Union recognised Belarusian independence in 1991. After the rise to power of Alexander Lukashenko in 1994, the relationship between Minsk and the EU deteriorated and has remained cold and distanced. Relations have started to improve since October 2008.

Although the European Union and Belarus signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) in 1995, which was intended to govern the mutual political and economic relations, this agreement was not ratified by the EU. Furthermore, the European Union has excluded Belarus from its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which was originally designed to establish a "ring of friends" in the Union's geographical proximity. Brussels has claimed this exclusion to be a direct response to the establishment of an authoritarian regime under President Lukashenko. However, EU-Belarus trade relations are still covered by the Union's Generalized System of Preferences and the most favoured nation (MFN) provisions of the 1989 Agreement between the EU and the Soviet Union. Belarus is amongst the few states in Europe that have not asked for membership in the European Union. Similarly, the European Union has not offered membership to Minsk.

In October 2009, a poll conducted by the independent NISEPI institute in Belarus found that 44.1 percent of the Belarussian people would vote Yes in a referendum to join the EU, compared to 26.7 percent one year ago. Local experts are linking the swing to more pro-EU messages in Belarusian state media, Polish daily Rzeczpospolita says.

According to an EU press release, Belarus has the opportunity to be an active partner of the EU in the framework of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), provided that the country embarks on fundamental democratic and economic reforms to bring the country closer to European common values. The EU's offer to re-engage with Belarus was set out in the document What the EU could bring to Belarus , which the Commission released in November 2006 and which offers Belarus to enter a full partnership, as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy, provided that Belarus takes convincing steps towards democratisation, respect for human rights and the rule of law. It contains concrete examples of how the people of Belarus could gain from a rapprochement between the EU and Belarus.


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