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Last Updated: Friday, 22 April, 2005, 18:31 GMT 19:31 UK
Belarus thanks Putin for support
Vladimir Putin (left) and Alexander Lukashenko
Vladimir Putin (left) said Mr Lukashenko was welcome in Russia
Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has thanked his Russian counterpart for his support during a meeting in Moscow.

His public show of gratitude follows remarks by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describing Belarus as the last true dictatorship in Europe.

Mr Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin were meeting to discuss trade relations and plans for a single currency.

Ms Rice's comments about Belarus were supported by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

"What we'd like to see is Belarus being involved with the kind of values, principles and way of life that is closer to what we have [in the EU]," he told reporters during a visit to the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

Mr Lukashenko knew he was among friends in Russia, a BBC correspondent in Moscow says.

"I want to thank you... for the huge support you are giving us at a difficult time for us in our history as a sovereign and independent nation," the Belarussian leader told Mr Putin.

The fact that an independent state... exists right in the centre of Europe riles the US
Belarussian state TV commentary

When asked about Ms Rice's remarks, he said he "didn't care for Rice or her statements".

"But it is heartening that she is aware this country, Belarus, does exist and that she knows its location," he said. "When she flew over it she must have seen there are no terrorists in Belarus," he added.

Mr Putin repaid compliments, telling the Belarussian leader eh was welcome in Russia.

Dissidents meeting

Among the other items on the two men's agenda were harmonisation of their countries' tax and customs systems.

As well as the description of Belarus as the last true dictatorship in central Europe, Ms Rice also angered Belarussian MPs by meeting seven dissidents.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Ms Rice has called for a credible alternative to Lukashenko

She told them that there would be "a road to democracy in Belarus".

She defended the right to public protests and called for a free media as well as credible elections. She said the presidential election scheduled for 2006 would offer "an excellent opportunity" for the people of Belarus to voice their will.

"We will support the idea that elections, when they are held, should be free and fair," she added.

But the opposition is divided and, despite more than a decade of rule by Mr Lukashenko, has failed to find a figure-head to unite around.

Belarus is an important defence partner for Russia and a vital part of its gas export pipeline network - which correspondents say explains why the Russia foreign ministry so strongly opposes "regime change".

Rice talks up Russian democracy
20 Apr 05 |  Europe
Analysis: Belarus defies West
21 Jan 05 |  Europe
Country profile: Belarus
18 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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