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In Lithuania, Lukashenko Stresses Ties with Russia

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Wednesday that he was not about to change his authoritarian ways just to gain favor with Europe, stressing that his country would remain a strategic ally of Russia.
"Europeans must understand they can't make us to do something that we do not want," he told an economic forum in the Lithuanian capital. "We know what are the best interests of our nation. We are not going to tear down the constitutional order."
Lukashenko made a rare visit to neighboring Lithuania — the first in 11 years — and the second trip to a European Union and NATO member since an EU travel ban on top Belarusian officials was lifted earlier this year.
EU officials have hinted that Belarus needs to implement more democratic and political reforms by November if it wants closer ties and aid from the 27-nation bloc.
Lukashenko, often described as Europe's last dictator, held talks with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and other senior government officials as both countries seek ways to improve bilateral relations, including trade.
Though wary of closer ties with the Lukashenko regime, foreign policy experts hope the Baltic state can gain economic benefits — such as handling transit of Belarusian exports — and encourage reforms of Belarus' authoritarian system.
"This visit provides us a chance to find new ways of solving old problems," said Laurynas Jonavicius, economic adviser to Lithuania's president. "We need progress after 10 years of mutual silence."
Lukashenko's visit also took place during a souring of relations with Russia, leading some to speculate that the Belarusian dictator is trying to reach out to the West. But Lukashenko told the forum his country has "old and close ties with Russia. Why should we sacrifice it? Who would benefit from it?"
Many Lithuanians were critical of the decision to invite Lukashenko. A dozen protesters jeered him near the presidential palace by waving signs and calling for an end to political repression in Belarus.
Lithuania and Belarus were expected to sign an agreement that would allow residents near the border to travel to the other country without a visa.
Belarusian officials claim that the cost of visas to the EU are too expensive and that Brussels should reduce them — a complaint that Lukashenko echoed during his visit.
Lukashenko's first visit to the West took place in April when he traveled to Italy to see the pope.

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