MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarus should not be isolated and Europe's policy towards it is changing, the chairman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said on a rare visit to the ex-Soviet state by a senior Western official.
Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb was meeting President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a week after a parliamentary election judged by the OSCE to have fallen short of international standards. But both the OSCE and European Union noted improvements in the ballot.
The United States and EU have imposed financial sanctions and a travel ban on Lukashenka, accusing authorities of jailing opposition activists, muzzling the media, and rigging elections.
But they softened their approach after the release in August of the last detainees deemed political prisoners.
"Belarus cannot be and should not be isolated," Stubb told journalists on the plane taking him to Minsk. Finland holds the chairmanship of the OSCE.
"My message is clear -- it is time to turn the page in Belarussian-European relations," Stubb told Lukashenka. "There is a clear mood that Belarus is moving in the right direction."
Stubb aims to strengthen ties with the organization as well as talk to officials ahead of a meeting next week in Luxembourg of EU foreign ministers and their Belarussian counterpart, Sergei Martynov.
Martynov is not among the 41 officials, including Lukashenka, barred from the EU and the United States. 'Real Change'
"There is clearly a real change taking place in EU policy towards Belarus," Stubb said.
The only other senior Western official to visit Belarus in the past several years was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Merkel who came in August for talks on improving ties after authorities freed opposition activists.
Lukashenka has sought to improve relations with the West after a row last year with traditional ally Russia over gas import prices.
He is maintaining a balancing act between the 27-member bloc to the West and Moscow. Belarus resisted pressure from Moscow and stopped short of recognizing Georgia's breakaway republics after Russia's war with its southern neighbor in August.
But the issue will be put to a vote in parliament and Lukashenka has said he is not moving out of the Russian orbit.
"Some people have been hinting that we have started thinking about a trade -- Russia for Europe," Lukashenka said on October 6 before meeting Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"We never make such trades with anyone. We would never trade our friendship with the Russians."