U.S. Urged to Back Off Belarus

ReutersZubkov shaking hands with Lukashenko during talks in Minsk on Friday.
MINSK -- Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov has called on the United States to ease its pressure on Belarus and vowed support for its president, Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus is involved in a diplomatic spat with the United States, which calls the country the "last dictatorship in Europe" and has imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko over Minsk's detention of an opposition politician.

"The Russian Federation thinks this is a politicized step. We call on Washington to rethink its line on Belarus," Zubkov told Lukashenko at a news conference for an economic forum.

U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart left Minsk temporarily earlier this month in the wake of two requests for her departure over Washington's imposition of financial sanctions against Belneftekhim, the state oil products company.

Stewart said Tuesday that Washington would only hold talks on easing sanctions if Belarus released its most prominent political detainee, Alexander Kozulin, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2006 election that kept him in power.

Belarus on Thursday suggested that Stewart would be barred from returning to Minsk until financial sanctions imposed on Belneftekhim were lifted.

On Friday, Belarussian Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky said his country had no interest in a confrontation with the United States nor in a worsening of relations.

"The Belarussian side does not want an escalation of tensions with the U.S.A., and what is more, it does not want diplomatic complications," Sidorsky said.

He also said the sanctions violated multilateral and bilateral agreements among Belarus, the European Union and the United States on the normalization of their relations.

"Belarus has taken steps to normalize relations with the U.S. and EU. The additional measures taken against Belneftekhim break the agreed-upon structures," Sidorsky said.