MINSK, June 22 (RIA Novosti) - Belarus and the EU are laying the groundwork to develop good relations, with Minsk committed to this goal, the Belarusian president said on Monday.
"We have a foundation to build our ties on. We honestly want to forge good ties, even if this may not be to somebody's liking," Alexander Lukashenko said during a meeting with EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Benita Ferrero Waldner.
He said Minsk would like the EU to understand that Belarus "is not only a geographical center for this continent" but also "a sovereign and independent state."
Prior to her visit Ferrero-Waldner said the EU would give Belarus 10 million euros ($13.9 mln) in aid for food safety programs.
A European Commission statement described food safety in Belarus, "where some 23% of the national territory remains contaminated after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster," as "a highly sensitive topic."
The visit by the commissioner, the second this year to the country, was rescheduled from March. Prior to the recent thawing, high-level contacts between Minsk and Brussels had been frozen for 12 years.
Lukashenko, who has run Belarus since 1994 and was once dubbed "Europe's last dictator" by Washington, has moved to rebuild ties with the West, freeing several political prisoners last year in line with EU demands.
The European Union has suspended a travel ban on the Belarusian leader, and the country has been invited to join the EU's Eastern Partnership program, seen by many as designed to curb Russia's influence on the six former Soviet republics - Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus - included in the scheme.
Earlier in June, the Belarusian president described cooperation with the EU as "part of a strategic plan."