MINSK, Belarus – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hailed the man dubbed "Europe's last dictator" Monday as he started an international tour by visiting the authoritarian leader of the isolated former Soviet nation of Belarus.
Chavez, a former army lieutenant colonel and a frequent, harsh critic of the Bush administration, was greeted with hugs and smiles by President Alexander Lukashenko at the presidential palace in Minsk.
Lukashenko, like Chavez, accuses the United States of trying to overthrow him. He has been in power since 1994.
The Belarusian leader has been criticized by the international community for quashing dissent, jailing opponents and extending his time in office through votes widely considered illegitimate. The United States and European Union slapped sanctions and a visa ban on Lukashenko and other top officials following presidential elections in March that the opposition denounced as fraudulent.
"Here, I've got a new friend and together we'll form a team, a go-ahead team," Chavez said before one-on-one talks. "I thank you, Alexander, for solidarity and we've come here to demonstrate our solidarity."
Lukashenko, an open admirer of the Soviet Union, returned the praise, calling the president of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter "a man of extensive knowledge."
"You are versed not only in the economy of Venezuela but in the Belarus economy, as well. You know military science, the military-industrial complex, and this impresses me very much," he said. "We have many directions for cooperation. There are no closed topics for discussions in our cooperation with Venezuela."
During the 24-hour visit, Chavez was slated to tour a military academy and the "Stalin Line" — a network of World War II-era defense installations restored by Lukashenko's government. A Belarusian foreign ministry spokesman said seven agreements on military-technical cooperation, trade and economic ties would be signed. Bilateral trade was nearly $16 million in 2005.
Chavez, who also plans to visit Qatar, Vietnam, Iran and Mali, is fighting a U.S. push to deny Venezuela a U.N. Security Council seat.
En route to Belarus Sunday, his plane stopped for refueling in Portugal, where the prime minister met with him for what a Portuguese spokesman called a "courtesy call."
Chavez was later expected to fly to Moscow to sign a series of major Russian weapons contracts. Russia's defense minister said Friday the nation would sell Venezuela 30 Su-30 fighters jets and 30 helicopters in a deal worth more than $1 billion.
The Bush administration in May announced a ban on U.S. arms sales to Venezuela because of what it called a lack of support for counterterrorism efforts.
Chavez nonetheless has been using surging oil revenues to modernize Venezuela's military, signing multibillion-dollar defense deals with Russia and Spain, among others. Venezuela is buying 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles and hopes to set up factories to produce more.
During a visit to Minsk last month, Chavez's older brother, Adan, Venezuela's ambassador to Cuba, proposed forming a common front against the "common enemy" United States.
U.S. officials accuse Chavez of threatening the stability of Latin America and say they have no plans to attack Venezuela, as he has alleged.