MINSK May 8 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)