While European Union leaders fret about whether to shake hands with Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s authoritarian president since 1994, the wily 54-year-old leader himself stole a march on his critics on Monday by popping up in, of all places, the Vatican for talks with Pope Benedict XVI. What’s more, he was due later on to be welcomed for dinner by Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister.
This is Lukashenko’s first official visit to a western European country since 1995 – although I am reliably informed that, since the EU suspended a travel ban on him last year, he may have made at least one private trip to western Europe. According to Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, the purpose of no longer treating Lukashenko as a polecat is to encourage democratic reform in Belarus and the gradual acceptance of EU norms of behaviour. Read more