Belarus leader calls for dialogue with European Union

MINSK Tue May 8, 2012 11:07am EDT

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MINSK May 8 (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, under pressure from the West over human rights, called for dialogue with the European Union on Tuesday and described the bloc as "an important partner".

The European Union has tightened sanctions against Belarus and withdrew ambassadors from Minsk in February, prompting concerns that the row would push Minsk back into Russia's orbit.

But relations have since improved somewhat and some diplomats returned to the former Soviet public after the Belarus leader released jailed opposition leader Andrei Sannikov.

Lukashenko, who had earlier ordered his government to soften its foreign policy message, struck a conciliatory tone during a speech in parliament in the capital Minsk on Tuesday.

"Yes, we (Belarus and the West) have different views on certain social issues," he said. "But these differences should be overcome through dialogue and negotiations rather than sanctions and bans."

"In terms of economics, and politics as well, Belarus and the European Union are important partners to each other."

In a jab at Russia, Lukashenko also spoke against large-scale privatisations - one of the conditions of a financial bailout package provided by Russia last year.

"Those who hope to make hay on Belarussian privatisation are wasting their time," he said.

Under the Russian deal, which has helped Belarus avert economic collapse, Minsk pledged to sell $2.5 billion worth of state assets a year for three years. Since then, it has sold its gas pipeline network to Russia's Gazprom.

Analysts expect Russian firms to be the main buyers in future privatisation deals but Lukashenko said Belarus would now limit asset sales and insist on the protection of employees' rights at privatised companies.

Lukashenko often maneuvers between Moscow and Brussels, part of his strategy to play them off against each other to extract favours from both, according to Western observers.

Russia, which has long subsidised the Belarussian welfare-state economy with cheap energy supplies, sees Belarus as a buffer against the West while the EU hopes to promote economic and political reforms in the nation of 10 million. (Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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