Lithuania anticipates thaw in EU-Belarus ties

Lithuania said Thursday it expected smoother relations between neighbour Belarus and the European Union, as the Baltic state gears up to take over the rotating EU presidency in July.

Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius said his Belarus counterpart Mikhail Myasnikovich, now visiting Lithuania, had expressed hope for the "closer ties" over a dinner Wednesday.

"The question of improving EU-Belarus relations may be raised during our presidency but Belarus, of course, must solve the issues raised by the EU," he told AFP.

Minsk has become increasingly isolated from Europe since a crackdown on dissent after the controversial 2010 presidential election, which handed President Alexander Lukashenko a historic fourth term.

The EU responded with economic sanctions and issued travel bans against nearly 250 people in the Belarussian government and court system.

The EU's Baltic states had voiced caution regarding the sanctions, amid warnings the move could impact the Baltic economies.

"We as a member of EU must comply with sanctions. Of course, some businessmen react negatively," Butkevicius told AFP.

Belarus is the eighth biggest market for Lithuanian exports, and Belarussian cargo makes up one third of the volume in its Baltic sea port.

Unlike Lukashenko and foreign minister Vladimir Makei, the Belarus prime minister was not blacklisted by the EU.

Butkevicius said he hoped Myasnikovich would score an invite to attend the next Eastern Partnership summit, an EU meeting with ex-Soviet states that takes place in Vilnius in November.

But he said it was up to the EU to decide: its chief Herman Van Rompuy is tasked with sending out the invites, along with Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite.

The Belarus president and premier were not invited to the previous summit in Poland two years ago, and some human rights activists and the Belarus opposition are calling for another snub.