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Belarus Welcomes Suspension Of EU Travel Ban

Lukashenka called EU sanctions an 'anachronism'
MINSK (Reuters) -- Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has praised the suspension of a European Union travel ban affecting him and dozens of officials as a "small but significant" step.

Lukashenka's comments were his first on the EU's decision a week ago to suspend the restriction for six months as a reward for freeing political prisoners in the ex-Soviet state.

Some sanctions were kept in place to voice displeasure at the conduct of last month's parliamentary elections, deemed by Western observers to have fallen short of international standards.

"All impediments to dialogue have been lifted. The main thing is we can now talk without an iron curtain, a Berlin Wall," Lukashenka told reporters at ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the destruction of Minsk's wartime Jewish ghetto.

"Sanctions are an anachronism. Europe may have made a small step, even a half-step, but so significant. We will be making many steps in this direction. These steps are to be praised," he said.

Lukashenka has for more than a year sought improved relations with the West after quarrelling with traditional ally Russia over energy prices.

The EU's move to remove travel bans on Lukashenka and more than 30 other officials followed the release of what it called the last political prisoners in Belarus in August.

Ministers also ended a separate four-year-old ban on high-level contacts with Belarusian officials. The EU noted some improvements in the September election, but opposition candidates still failed to win a single seat in parliament and the ban remained in force for Belarus's top election official.

Lukashenka has made plain in the last week that he intends to maintain his balancing act of improving ties with the West, while still maintaining a special relationship with Russia.

Belarus and Russia are still formally pursuing the goal of forming a post-Soviet merged "union state," though little progress has been made in realizing the project.

Belarus has yet to clinch a deal with Russia on gas supplies for next year, but hopes to limit any increase to $140 per 1,000 cubic meters from $128 currently. Russian gas giant Gazprom has suggested it will press for $250 as part of a drive to bring prices for ex-Soviet states up to world levels.