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Belarus Leader Offers Cash To Separatist Abkhazia

President Dmitry Medvedev (R) with his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka
MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has offered financial help to Georgia's separatist Abkhazia region, but said nothing about following Russia's lead by formally recognizing it.

Lukashenka, long accused by the United States and the European Union of crushing fundamental freedoms, has been trying for two years to improve relations with the West, while maintaining traditionally strong links with Moscow.

But he has resisted calls by Moscow to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russia did after its five-day conflict with Georgia last year.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia in the 1990s. Nicaragua is the only other country to have extended recognition -- and Western capitals have made clear they would disapprove of any move by Belarus to do so.

"The president of Russia and I have already discussed the problems in this region that concern the economy and involve Belarus," Lukashenka's press service quoted him as saying after meeting Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazia's separatist leader.

"There are plenty of themes to discuss, mostly economic. And there are always more items for discussion after achieving independence. We would be pleased, if Belarus's participation can help resolve problems in the region."

Lukashenka met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev twice last week, but no details of their discussions have been made public.

Belarus, an ex-Soviet state of 10 million lying between Russia and three EU members, has so far resisted calls by Russia to proceed with formal recognition of the two separatist regions.

Lukashenka has said it is up to Belarus's parliament, loyal to the president and without a single opposition deputy, to decide. The assembly is next due to sit from April 2.

Belarus has received credits worth $1.5 billion from Russia to help it counter the effects of the world financial crisis and anticipates receiving a further $500 million.

Belarus's relations with the West have warmed since it released detainees last year, who were considered political prisoners in the West. But a parliamentary election in September was deemed to have fallen short of acceptable standards.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana made the bloc's first high-level visit to Minsk in many years last month and an EU source said he warned Lukashenka that closer ties would be jeopardized, if Minsk recognized the two separatist regions.