Shunned Belarus handed invitation from EU

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The Independent Online

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, long shunned in the West, was handed an invitation yesterday to attend an EU summit with former Soviet republics in Prague next month, his foreign minister said.

It was not certain whether Lukashenko, who has faced accusations in the West of crushing fundamental rights, would attend the Eastern Partnership summit in Prague in person – possibly embarrassing EU leaders – or send someone else.

But the veteran leader has achieved his main aim – thrusting his country of 10 million back into mainstream European society, analysts said.

Rome said on Friday that Lukashenko would visit Italy later this month, his first official trip to a Western country since the mid-1990s. He will also meet the Pope at the Vatican.

Lukashenko has been trying to improve ties with the West since quarrelling with traditional ally Russia two years ago over energy prices.

Belarussian Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergei Martynov said his Czech opposite number, Karel Schwarzenberg, had handed the invitation to Lukashenko during talks in Minsk. "The minister turned over to the president an invitation to take part in this summit," he told reporters.

Schwarzenberg said: "The president did not confirm his attendance. He accepted the invitation. It is now for him to decide who will represent Belarus at the summit."

"The invitation is addressed to the state of Belarus as such," Schwarzenberg's spokeswoman said in Prague.

In Rome, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Reuters he would meet Lukashenko in Rome next week and that the Belarussian leader would also see Pope Benedict XVI. Frattini added that he supported inviting Lukashenko to the summit to discuss aid to six former Soviet republics – Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as Belarus.

Analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said Lukashenko was emerging from years of isolation with the prize he sought. "Whatever the nuances, this is a breakthrough for Lukashenko and for Belarussian diplomacy," he said. "The authorities have got what they were after for many years. The West has recognised that its policy of isolation was ineffective."

Lukashenko and about 40 other officials had been banned entry to the European Union on grounds that he had rigged his re-election in 2006.