Belarus leader to West: 'We will not crawl'

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told the European Union on Friday not to expect major changes in the tightly controlled former Soviet republic after a presidential election, expected early next year.

Lukashenko told a visiting EU official "we will not crawl on our knees before you, before Russia or before America."

The remarks clouded a meeting with EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule, who later said Belarus had backtracked after making progress toward European standards of democracy and rights.

"Minsk took many positive steps in 2008. In recent months, the EU member nations have not seen movement forward ... it's more like movement backward," Fule told reporters, speaking Russian.

Long reviled by the EU and the United States for his intolerance of dissent, Lukashenko has sought to improve ties with the West amid increasing tension with Moscow, which has decreased economic subsidies to its Slavic neighbor.

Belarus has released inmates considered by the West to have been political prisoners and taken other steps to appease the EU and Washington. But they have said the government must do more to advance democracy and improve human rights.

Fule told reporters after his meeting with Lukashenko that the presidential vote will test the government's commitment to democracy.

"Elections are an international stamp in a country's democratic passport. Belarus needs that stamp," he said.

But Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has said he suspects the EU and the United States -- and lately even longtime ally Russia -- just want him out of office.

Lukashenko, who wants the EU to drop all travel sanctions against Belarusian authorities and improve trade terms, said he does "not harbor any hopes" about stronger EU support.

"You will wait and see how the election turns out ... I would like to warn you against any excessive hopes in this connection," he told Fule.

"Squeezed from both sides between you and Russia, it's hard for us. But we will not fall to our knees," he said.

Fule said the EU would propose a democratic reform blueprint for Belarus this autumn.

(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Elizabeth Fullerton)


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