Belarus leader puts off speech over foreign policy

MINSK Thu Apr 19, 2012 6:36am EDT

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko attends the Eurasian Union Summit in Moscow March 19, 2012. REUTERS/Anton Golubev

Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko attends the Eurasian Union Summit in Moscow March 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Anton Golubev

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MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, under growing Western pressure over human rights, has put off his annual address to the nation and told officials to soften its foreign policy message, his office said on Thursday.

The European Union has introduced travel bans and asset freezes against Lukashenko and a number of Belarussian officials and businessmen in response to the veteran leader's crackdown on the opposition after his re-election in late 2010.

Signaling Lukashenko's willingness to repair relations with the West, his office said he had ordered references to "excessively tough response measures" in foreign policy to be removed from his annual address, initially planned for Thursday.

"The (new) date has not been set yet," Lukashenko's spokesman Pavel Liogkiy said. "Changes need to be made (to the text)."

Analysts said that by making a point out of the last-minute changes to the text of the speech, Lukashenko, known more as a spontaneous speaker, appeared to be sending a message to the West that he was ready to soften his tone.

The move also comes just a week after one of Lukashenko's most vocal political opponents, Andrei Sannikov, was pardoned and released from prison.

As tensions escalated in February, the European Union withdrew its envoys from Minsk, highlighting the former Soviet republic's growing isolation.

Lukashenko usually invites all foreign ambassadors present in the country to parliament for the annual address but diplomats from the 27-member bloc have yet to return to Minsk.

"The fact that the president has ordered to soften the foreign policy message can be regarded as a signal to Brussels that Minsk is ready to become more flexible," Minsk-based political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said.

"The delay means Belarus wants to take a pause and see what steps Brussels takes."

SWINGING BETWEEN MOSCOW AND BRUSSELS

Lukashenko has run Belarus since 1994, tolerating little dissent and relying heavily on Russian economic support to maintain a welfare state with artificially low prices and near-full employment.

He has, however, repeatedly engaged the European Union, building up warmer ties with Brussels at times when Russia turned more assertive - only to backtrack again when his power at home appeared challenged, diplomats say.

According to Lukashenko's office, the Belarussian leader was also unhappy with privatization plans outlined in the address, seeing them as too aggressive.

The sale of state assets was a key condition of the Russian bailout package that helped Belarus avoid economic collapse after last year's currency crisis triggered by excessive pre-election spending.

Russia has already used the opportunity to take over Belarus' gas pipeline network which ships Russian gas to Europe.

The European Union has not yet indicated if it would ease sanctions or at least send back ambassadors in response to Sannikov's release.

Human rights groups say there are still about 15 political prisoners in Belarus, including another former presidential candidate, Nikolai Statkevich.

Sannikov told Reuters after his release he had been pushed to commit suicide in prison and urged the West to keep up pressure on Minsk until all political prisoners are released.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by Maria Golovnina)

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