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Europe

Europe's "last dictator" invited to EU summit

The European Union has invited the man who George W. Bush referred to as Europe's last dictator to a Prague summit at which EU leaders plan to launch an initiative called Eastern Partnership.

Belarusian Presiden Alexander Lukashenko

Lukashenko hasn't said whether he will attend an EU summit in Prague

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the European Union's rotating presidency until June 30, delivered the invitation during a meeting with President Aleksander Lukashenko in Minsk on Friday. The Belarusian president, however, did not say whether he intended to travel to Prague.

"The president did not confirm his attendance," Schwarzenberg said.

"He accepted the invitation. It is now for him to decide who will represent Belarus at the summit."

The invitation on behalf of the EU appears to be a policy reversal from the Czech Republic, which has long actively backed the anti-Lukashenko political opposition. In 2002, Prague denied Lukashenko a visa for a NATO summit in the Czech capital.

Weißrussland Unabhängigkeitstag Präsident Lukaschenko in Minsk

The Belarusian president has been described as Europe's last dictator

The Belarusian leader is set to visit Italy and meet Pope Benedict XVI in late April, a further sign of a potential thaw in relations with the West. It will be Lukashenko's first official trip to a Western country since the mid-1990s.

The administration of former US President George W. Bush described Belarus, under President Lukashenko, Europe's "last dictatorship".

Lukashenko has been trying to improve ties with the West since quarrelling with his traditional ally Russia two years ago over energy prices.

In a joint statement several Belarusian opposition leaders warned the EU that inviting Lukashenko to Prague was a show of support for a lawless regime, and would legitimize his dictatorship.

The aim of the Eastern partnership is to bind six former Soviet republics closer to the 27-member EU.

The EU hopes to bring Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine closer, through increased aid and partnership deals, in return for democratic and pro-market reforms. The plan, however, does not offer full EU membership to any of the six countries.

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