Italy's Berlusconi visit ends Belarus isolation

MINSK -Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko as 'loved' by his people Monday as he became the first Western leader to visit the reclusive state in 15 years.

Belarussians "love you, which is shown by the elections," Berlusconi told President Lukashenko, who is often accused of human rights abuses and election rigging, in a declaration after talks on Monday.

In turn, Lukashenko praised Berlusconi, currently battling accusations of links with the mafia and mired in sex scandals, as "a global, planetary man of politics, our friend."

Berlusconi's day-long visit to the former Soviet republic brought to an end the diplomatic isolation imposed on Belarus by the West over its multiple abuses of human rights after Lukashenko came to power in 1994.

Lukashenko acknowledged the significance of the visit, telling Berlusconi that, "We consider your visit not only in the context of bilateral relations but also as eloquent support of our country on the international scene."

The visit focused on strengthening business ties.

"Our relations are not what they could be.There is potential," Berlusconi said, adding that Italy is in 15th place among foreign investors in Belarus.

"Berlusconi has unique personal contacts that contribute to the development of geopolitical contacts. He visits Russia and the Arab world," Lukashenko's spokesman Pavel Lyogky told journalists before the talks.

The visit saw the signing of a draft agreement between Italian engineering group Finmeccanica and the Belarussian government. The leaders also agreed on the creation of a joint industrial zone in the town of Brest.

In a diplomatic move, Lukashenko handed over KGB archives on Italian prisoners of war who were captured in Belarus.

Last year the European Union softened its stance on Belarus and lifted a travel ban on Lukashenko and other Belarussian officials, in what was seen as a new strategy of engagement with the country.

Berlusconi's visit came in response to Lukashenko's visit to Rome in April. The Italian premier said then that the time had come for Belarus to emerge from its isolation.

Lukashenko has previously received political leaders with an anti-Western stance such as Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Belarussian leader was elected with a huge majority, but has a record of jailing opposition politicians, imposing severe restrictions on rallies and blocking any criticism in the state-controlled media.

Belarussian opposition leader Anatoly Lebedko, head of the United Civil Party of Belarus, expressed doubts that the visit would promote democratic values in Belarus.

"Berlusconi is a colourful politician. He resembles Lukashenko, he has a spirit of political adventure," Lebedko told AFP.

"He is coming to Belarus as a businessman. For him, everything is for sale at a price, even if this requires him to sacrifice European values."

Belarus is the only country in the European continent not to be part of the Council of Europe, after it was booted out in 1997 over multiple violations.

It is a member of the EU's newly-formed Eastern Partnership programme, which is intended to regulate relations between the European Union and former Soviet states.

The detente in EU-Belarussian ties comes as Belarus has regularly quarrelled with its traditional ally, Russia, in recent years, and Lukashenko has exchanged cutting remarks with Russian leaders.



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