MINSK (Reuters) - Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko on Friday welcomed the awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature to his compatriot Svetlana Alexievich, saying he did not hold her criticism of his government against her.
Alexievich, who lives in Minsk, won the prize on Thursday for her portrayal of the harshness of life in the Soviet Union. She has not shied away from criticizing the authoritarian rule of Lukashenko, in power since 1994.
Lukashenko’s conciliatory comments, made two days before a presidential election in Belarus in which he is seeking a fifth term, come amid a cautious rapproachment between Minsk and the West, long strained by his treatment of political dissent and poor human rights record.
“I am happy for her because she is a citizen of Belarus,” the official Belta news agency quoted Lukashenko as saying during a tour of a nuclear power plant.
“It’s good for a person to take up a position. Maybe it’s in the opposition. That’s her form, her style. I don’t have anything against her,” said the former state farm manager.
In her first public comments after winning the Nobel Prize, Alexievich said she would not bother voting in Sunday’s election “because we know who will win”.
Lukashenko, who described himself in an interview with Reuters three years ago as the “last and only dictator in Europe”, keeps tight control of his country’s mass media and none of the three candidates running against him on Sunday represents a serious challenge to his rule.
Nevertheless, his criticism of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year, his hosting of Ukraine peace talks and his pardoning of six opposition leaders in August suggest he is seeking to improve his image in the West, observers say.
The European Union will lift its sanctions on Belarus, including those on Lukashenko, for four months after Sunday’s vote, barring any last-minute crackdown, diplomatic sources said on Friday.
Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Gareth Jones