Belarus to allow EU commission office in capital

Minsk (dpa) - Belarus' authoritarian government on Wednesday reversed a long-held position, allowing a key branch of the European Union to open an office in the country, Interfax newsagency reported.

Belarus had for two years ignored the EU Commission's request to set up a representation in the capital of the former Soviet republic.

The European Commission is the executive body, and one of the three major governing branches of the European Union.

A need for closer relations between the EU and Belarus as well as possible assistance, provided by Europe to the former Soviet republic, were the reasons which led to that decision, said Andrei Popov, spokesman of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

EU officials in November 2006 offered Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko a substantial increase in assistance programmes in exchange for Belarusian efforts to promote democracy.

Lukashenko at that time rejected the offer as he considered it useless to Belarus.

During his eleven-year reign of the country, he repeatedly attacked foreign country's diplomatic legations claiming they were trying to undermine his government.

In 1998, Lukashenkop notoriously evicted hundreds of Western diplomats from their Minsk residences, using the pretext of building maintenance and completely ignoring the fact that they were foreign territory under international law.

In a parliament speech held on Tuesday, Lukashenko remained true to himself, saying Belarus "will not compromise on its principles...or enter into any new agreements against Belarusian national interests."

However, giving the EU permission to open a representational office in Minsk marks a distinct step away from the hard line taken by Lukashenko against Western governments in recent years, diplomats in Minsk said.

Lukashenko began overtures to Western nations shortly after in January 2007, the Kremlin had ended most subsidies to fuel exported to Belarus and had announced it would no longer give Belarusian exports state assistance in Russian markets.

Benefits Lukashenko can expect if he opens up his country towards the EU include a loosening of visa restrictions on Belarusian citizens visiting the EU, and a reduction of excise barriers to Belarusian products sold in EU markets.

The EU also has offered Belarus assistance in reforming its judicial system and modernizing its transportation and energy infrastructure.