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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lukashenko Seeks Closer EU Ties

VILNIUS — Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko was on Tuesday quoted as saying he wanted to improve relations with the European Union and maintain very close ties with Russia.

Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe's last dictator by a former U.S. administration, spoke in Lithuanian media interviews before a visit to the Baltic state. It will be his second trip to an EU nation after relations with the West began to warm.

"We are not turning away from Russia to Europe, because you can turn your head once or twice, but the third time you may break your neck," he told Lithuanian daily Lietuvos Rytas.

He said ties with Moscow were "excellent". "Be it in diplomacy, politics or economics — we don't have closer relations with anybody else.

"Speaking about Europe, we have not turned anywhere. It's just that Europe has noticed Belarus. We have always been seeking to have good relations with Europe. Always," he added.

The EU imposed a travel ban on Lukashenko for alleged vote-rigging in 2006, but froze sanctions last year as a reward for freeing political prisoners. Moscow has been unhappy with Lukashenko's attempts to curry favor with the West.

Lukashenko visited Italy in April. He was expected in Lithuania later on Tuesday for a meeting with top officials and for the opening of an economic forum on Wednesday.

Despite the easing of ties with the West, Lukashenko rejected criticism of his rights record.

"Those rebukes are totally unacceptable and dishonest. Those who say so don't know the real situation," he said.

Belarussian opposition members, who met Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius on Monday, said they were concerned.

"He is just happy to have the chance to come to Lithuania. ...We should understand the dangers of legitimizing a dictator," Alexander Kozulin, a representative of the Belarussian opposition, told reporters.