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Top EU official urges Belarus to democratise

Minsk — Belarus needs to democratise if it wants closer ties with the West, a top European Union official told the country’s leader, President Alexander Lukashenko, during a landmark visit to the country Monday.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU Commissioner for External Relations, is the first EU commissioner to visit Belarus amid a recent thaw in relations between the European bloc and the isolated ex-Soviet republic.

"Our cooperation should be a two-way street," she told Lukashenko, in comments distributed by the presidential press service.

"If there is movement on your side, then the potential in our relations will be realised."

Lukashenko, for his part, said: "We truly want good relations with you, even if someone does not like it" — an apparent dig at Russia, a long-time ally of Belarus that has been angered by his moves to seek closer ties with the EU.

Ferrero-Waldner said the EU had presented Belarus with a list of requests that it would need to fulfil for better ties.

While Minsk had acted on some of them, "there are other requests that still need to be fulfilled," she added.

Belarus needed to reform its election laws and do more to protect freedom of speech and assembly, she told reporters later.

Lukashenko has ruled Belarus in an authoritarian fashion since 1994 and was once famously dubbed "Europe’s last dictator" by Washington.

But over the past year, the EU has switched to a policy of engagement, widely seen as an effort to pull Belarus out of Russia’s orbit.

It lifted a travel ban on Lukashenko and brought the country into its Eastern Partnership plan.

In return Lukashenko has freed some political prisoners, but analysts doubt that he will agree to far-reaching reforms that might threaten his grip on power.