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Belarus Thaws

DPA news agency (dm)September 19, 2008

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Thursday called on the West to "accept" his country amid signs of a thaw in a state described by Washington as Europe's last dictatorship.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko
Despite being a Russian ally, Belarus's President Lukashenko is courting the WestImage: picture alliance / dpa

Seen largely as within Russia's sphere of influence, Belarus has moved towards mending strained ties with Europe in the run-up to parliamentary elections in the country on Sept. 28.

It comes at a time when the EU is eager to bolster ties with neighbours that share a border with a newly resurgent Russia. Last month's Georgia conflict saw Russia invade the small Caucasus nation and support the independence claims of two of its restive regions.

"Belarus does not want dialogue with the West through the 'iron curtain' it has built on its border," Lukashenko said in an interview with Western journalists ahead of the parliamentary polls. "We want dialogue in all areas."

"We want you to accept us and to recognize our elections," Lukashenko said, according to excerpts of the interview provided by his office.

Lukashenko, in power for 14 years, is accused by the United States and the European Union of rigging elections, jailing opponents and closing down free media. No election held in the former Soviet republic since the mid-1990s has been deemed free or fair.

Prisoner releases herald prospect of thaw

Alexander Kozulin
Alexander Kozulin was released from detention, along with other notable political prisonersImage: AP

Last month, Lukashenko released Belarus' highest-profile political prisoner, former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, and the remaining political prisoners being held there.

European foreign ministers on Monday responded by holding out the prospect of aid and lifted sanctions in a bid to persuade Lukashenko to hold democratic elections.

Following the prisoner release, Washington also said the move set the stage for a "significant" improvement in ties.

Lukashenko said Western monitoring of the upcoming elections would prove that Belarus was a genuine democracy.

"We have opened the country for you. Come, look, observe, whether the pre-election campaign, the voting and the election itself are undertaken in line with our laws," he said.

Forty Belarussian figures, including the president, have been banned from entering the EU since the 2006 presidential election which was judged not to comply with international norms.

Last week, a major Belarus opposition party leader warned that Western countries would turn a blind eye to fraud in next month's legislative election and recognise a win for the outgoing authoritarian regime.