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Belarus leader visits Austria, seeking closer EU ties

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Vienna (AFP)

Belarus's isolated leader Alexander Lukashenko on Tuesday visits Austria, marking his first trip to an EU member in more than three years as he seeks closer ties amid tensions with Russia.

Lukashenko will meet Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen in his first official visit to the small Alpine nation following a trip of then Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz to Belarus in March.

Often dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship", Belarus has been the target of Western sanctions over its poor rights record and lack of fair elections, and 65-year-old Lukashenko has rarely travelled to Europe.

In recent years however the West and Belarus have sought to improve ties as the Kremlin has pushed for a closer relationship between Moscow and Minsk.

Karin Kneissl, Austria's foreign minister under Kurz's previous administration, said in January that her country wanted to develop closer ties with Belarus as a "buffer state" between Russia, the EU and Ukraine.

Belarus's closest ally is Russia and the two have formed a nominal "union", with close trade and military cooperation.

In recent months Moscow has been pressuring Minsk into closer integration. While Lukashenko has welcomed closer ties with Moscow, he has pushed back at the idea of outright unification.

Moscow has denied that is on the cards. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said it was "normal" for Minsk to have contacts with other countries.

- 'Loyal' EU ally -

Being hosted by an EU member represents a "diplomatic success" for Lukashenko ahead of parliamentary elections on Sunday, political analyst Artyom Shraibman said.

Lukashenko said in September he also wanted to improve ties with Washington as he welcomed then White House national security advisor John Bolton for rare talks in Minsk.

The Soviet-era collective farm chief became Belarus's first post-independence president in 1994 and has dominated the country ever since.

In 2016, Lukashenko visited Italy and the Vatican after the European Union lifted most of the sanctions it had imposed in recent years against him and other Belarusians in a move to encourage progress on human rights.

Belarus is the only country in Europe that still uses capital punishment.

Since 2016, Lukashenko has been repeatedly invited to visit Europe, but he had until now declined those invitations.

After Russia, Austria is one of Belarus's biggest sources of foreign direct investment, and Belarus media labelled it "the most loyal" of EU members to Minsk.

Lukashenko has been in Austria privately to go skiing with his family in 2002. Kurz gifted him a pair of hand-made wooden skis during his March visit to Belarus.

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