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Belarusian Leader Praises Obama, Seeks Better Ties

Alyaksandr Lukashenka
MINSK (Reuters) -- The leader of Belarus has praised U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as "young, educated, and unblinkered" and said he hoped he would improve strained relations between the two countries.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has long been accused of crushing basic rights but has sought better ties with the West for more than a year after quarrelling with Russia over energy prices.

"[Obama] is a new, young, educated, and unblinkered man, a faster-acting and more energetic man who will be able to look at the world situation in a more realistic way," Lukashenka told "The Wall Street Journal" in an interview, excerpts of which were released to local media on November 11.

"If it is in America's interests to develop relations with us without new barriers or preconditions, we will move toward that in a serious way.

"And Americans will be pleased with their cooperation with Belarus. I believe Americans have understood that Belarus is a key country in Europe and cooperation is necessary."

Belarus's ties with Washington plunged to unprecedented lows after sanctions imposed on oil producer Belneftekhim last year prompted authorities to ask the U.S. ambassador to leave Minsk in March.

But tension subsided with the West after Belarusian courts ordered the release in August of the last detainees considered political prisoners. Washington eased some punitive measures.

The European Union later suspended a travel ban on Lukashenka after Western monitors judged September parliamentary elections to be an improvement over earlier contests, while still saying it fell short of proper standards.

Lukashenka says he still views Russia as his country's strategic partner and in the interview praised Moscow's "appropriate actions" in opposing the proposed deployment of a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.

But parliament in the former Soviet republic has failed to move on Russian requests to recognize the separatist Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia launched a counterattack deep into Georgia in August in response to an attempt by that country's pro-Western leadership to recapture South Ossetia. Moscow later recognized the independence of both regions despite Western condemnation.