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Belarus Leader Has Cautious Welcome To EU Visa Move

Alyaksandr Lukashenka
MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarus's president has welcomed an EU decision to uphold suspension of a visa ban on top officials, but said he would not let the bloc keep Belarus hanging on a hook, "taking signals from our opposition scum."

EU foreign ministers on March 16 prolonged for nine months a suspension of a visa ban imposed on President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and about 40 officials after a 2006 reelection deemed fraudulent by some observers.

But it stopped short of inviting Lukashenka to attend a May summit of six ex-Soviet states that the EU hopes will ease reliance on Russian energy.

The ministers' statement praised some positive steps in Belarus, but expressed concern about what it called recent violations of human rights.

"I am aware of the Europeans' decision. Thank you -- this is good," Lukashenka, quoted by the official BELTA news agency, said on a tour of northern Belarus. "But if they believe that they can keep us hanging on some sort of hook after taking signals from our opposition scum, if they believe they can push us around and use spurs, we will not take part in any dialogue."

Lukashenka said EU caution was prompted by the intrigues of Belarus's liberal and nationalist opposition.

"This is not an opposition. It is a fifth column. They are enemies of the Belarussian people," BELTA quoted him as saying. "Many of those whom we let out of prison are whining to push harder, put more pressure on Lukashenka in times of crisis."

Opposition groups, often subject to divisions and still without a seat in parliament, urge the West to demand changes to electoral law, legislation on the media and provisions of the criminal code they say are used against political opponents.

The EU froze visa sanctions last year as a reward for the release of what Western states saw as political prisoners. On March 16, it said the new extension sought to encourage "further concrete measures towards democracy and respect for human rights."

Belarus, where Lukashenka has been in power since 1994, has been trying to improve its ties with the West but also seeks close relations with Russia, its giant eastern neighbor.

The EU has still to decide whether to invite Lukashenka to a May summit of an Eastern Partnership with ex-Soviet states, to which it is offering 350 million euros ($450 million) in aid.