31st Mar 2023

Belarus 'dictator' makes EU comeback

Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko exchanged gifts with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome on Monday (27 April) on his first trip to the EU in 13 years.

The pair in a 25 minute meeting in The Vatican spoke in a "positive climate" about "the relationship between faith and reason" and Roman Catholic-Russian Orthodox church relations, The Holy See said in a statement.

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The unusual meeting saw Mr Lukashenko - a self-confessed atheist - take along his four year old son, Kolya, born out of wedlock. The boy gave the pontiff his Russian spelling book as a form of diplomatic gift. The pope gave the president a traditional golden medal.

The trip was Mr Lukashenko's first to the EU since 1996. It comes after the EU provisionally lifted a visa ban on him and his close circles in October.

The president, dubbed a "dictator" by the US, has been widely accused of rigging elections and using security forces to keep down opposition. He is also suspected of personal involvement in the disappearance of four pro-democracy activists in 1999 and 2000.

The Rome visit was to see the Belarus leader dine with Italian President Silvio Berlusconi and foreign minister Franco Frattini later in the day.

Italy's message would be "based on fundamental European principles on the rule of law and the rights and freedoms of Belarusian men and women," Mr Frattini said in an open letter to Italian daily Corriere della Sera.

The Italian reception is a public relations coup for Mr Lukashenko, who was two weeks ago attacked by Czech President Vaclav Klaus.

The Czech head of state said he would not shake the Belarusian's hand if he comes to Prague for an "Eastern Partnership" summit on 7 May.

A Czech diplomat on Monday said Minsk has not yet confirmed whether or not Mr Lukashenko will attend the event.

Senior EU figures defended the partnership initiative against Russian allegations that it is an attempt to build an EU "sphere of influence" in the six countries - Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - involved in the scheme.

"[Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov] knows himself that's nonsense," acting Czech foreign minister Karl Schwarzenberg, speaking for the Czech EU presidency, said on Monday ahead of an EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, DPA reports.


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