BRUSSELS, July 25 (UPI) -- Belarus, seen as a human rights pariah, is seeking to cooperate with the European Union in its eastern integration process, Minsk's foreign minister says.
Vladimir Makei, whose visa ban was recently lifted, this week made his country's first official visit to Brussels since 2010, signaling an apparent thaw in Belarus' frosty EU relations.
He came away saying Belarus now wants to take part in the Eastern Partnership program, which aims to integrate the countries of the former Soviet bloc into the EU.
"We expressed our interest in cooperating in all the spheres of the Eastern Partnership," Makei told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty after participating in a meeting including EU commissioners and Eastern European foreign ministers.
It was held in preparation of the Eastern Partnership Summit, scheduled for November in Vilnius, Lithuania, to discuss the shape of a declaration to be issued at the event.
The EU is hoping to sign an "association agreement" with Ukraine and move closer to association and free-trade deals with Moldova, Georgia and Armenia in Vilnius.
An offer to negotiate similar agreements with Belarus remains on the table, but little progress has been made since its December 2010 elections, during which authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko was returned to office in a vote widely condemned as rigged.
The EU placed sanctions on Belarus after authorities staged a violent crackdown on protesters following the disputed vote.
A statement released by the Minsk government said Makei met Monday with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fule, as well as the foreign ministers of the Eastern Partnership states.
During a speech, Makei "confirmed fundamental approach of the Republic of Belarus to the development of relations with the European Union [and] underlined the necessity of developing interaction to fill multilateral and bilateral tracks of Eastern Partnership," the statement said.
It added Makei made "concrete proposals to strengthen economic and business ties between the EU and the partners and to expand cooperation in transport, energy and customs infrastructure."
Speaking to RFL/RE after the event, the foreign minister said Belarus "made some proposals to the [Vilnius] declaration," adding, "we think that all partner states should be treated on an equal basis, a non-discriminatory basis."
Makei also told the Belarusian Telegraph Agency he believes the barriers to closer ties with the EU can be overcome.
"It is up to analysts to speculate and talk about circumstances," he said. "Yes, there are problems. But we absolutely believe that they are surmountable, moreover, they are artificial."
Human rights groups, however, protested his Brussels visit, citing the continuing detentions of political prisoners such as Nobel peace prize nominee Alex Bialiatski.
Human Rights Watch said before the visit that it should be used "reinforce tough and principled human rights demands on the government."
"The EU should not be misled by Lukashenko's promises of democratization," Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director for HRW, said in a statement. "It should stay firm on the benchmarks for reopening its dialogue with Belarus."