On a visit to Austria, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka defended Belarus’s human rights record, as he called for closer relations with the European Union.
Lukashenka made the comments on November 12 at a joint press conference with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen in Vienna.
It was his first trip to an EU member state since his Italy visit more than three years ago.
Critics of the authoritarian president, who has ruled Belarus for a quarter of a century, say his government has shown little tolerance for dissent and independent media.
The country has been the target of U.S. and EU sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, but Belarus and the West have recently sought to mend ties to reduce Russia’s influence in the country.
Russia is Belarus’s largest trading partner and props up its smaller neighbor’s economy with cheap energy. Austria is the second-largest foreign investor in Belarus after Russia.
During the press conference, Lukashenka hailed Austria as "an important political and business partner" for Belarus, and said Vienna could help normalize ties between his country and the 28-member bloc.
Asked about human rights in Belarus, he said: "It is a country where one can relax in peace and security."
He also said that Belarusians enjoyed the right to life, the right to work in Belarus and abroad, and the right to free education.
Van der Bellen, who visited Belarus last year, said he saw a "certain rapprochement" between Minsk and the EU, but he also noted that he strongly opposes the death penalty in Belarus.
Lukashenka said the death penalty was approved in a 1996 referendum.
For years, the EU has urged Belarus to join other countries in declaring a moratorium on capital punishment.
According to rights organizations, some 400 people have been sentenced to death in Belarus since it gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.