Page last updated at 16:22 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 17:22 UK

Belarus warms relations with EU

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and  EU External Relations chief Benita Ferrero-Waldner
Lukashenko and Ferrero-Waldner both said they wanted closer ties

The president of Belarus has told a top EU official that he "sincerely wants to build good relations" with the bloc, shrugging off Russian disapproval.

EU External Relations chief Benita Ferrero-Waldner promised Belarus co-operation on "a wide range of areas of mutual interest" on Monday.

President Alexander Lukashenko welcomed her visit and said he wanted to improve ties "no matter whom that displeases".

That appeared to be a reference to its previously close friend Russia.

Belarus has been Russia's closest ally in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there are now real tensions between them, says the BBC's Russian affairs analyst Steven Eke.

Gas dispute

Earlier this month Russia imposed a ban on Belarussian dairy products, ostensibly on health grounds. Belarus retaliated by installing a highly symbolic customs post on the two countries' joint border.

Both measures were later reversed, but a bigger dispute looms.

The Russian gas giant, Gazprom, has demanded that Belarus pay its gas bill for the first four months of this year - worth $230m - within a week, a tall order.

The EU recently launched its "Eastern Partnership", which aims to improve ties with six former Soviet republics, including Belarus.

Although it has been called "Europe's last dictatorship", Belarus recently freed all political prisoners and made other concessions to democracy.

"Belarus has taken steps in the right direction and we have recognised that," Ms Ferrero-Waldner said, adding that the EU would be prepared to reward further reforms.

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