Berlusconi breaks Belarus' isolation

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has broken Belarus' isolation from the West with a one-day visit to its capital Minsk. It was the first time in 15 years that a Western leader had visited the country.

Belarus, which is led by President Alexander Lukashenko, has been called by some observers 'the last dictatorship in Europe'. Opposition figures face harsh punishments for organising protests and there is no freedom of the press. Privately owned businesses scarcely exist.

However, changes appear to be underway: international observers say the last elections were reasonably democratic. Prompted by this, the European Union lifted some of its sanctions in a bid to stimulate further reforms. Shortly before Mr Berlusconi's visit, the Belarusian parliament liberalised its controversial electoral law.

Mr Lukashenko called the Italian prime minister's visit "a revealing gesture of support". Among the subjects the two leaders discussed were cooperation in the fields of energy and transport. A high percentage of Russian oil and gas exports to Europe pass through Belarus.


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