Venezuela's Chavez Visits Politically Isolated Belarus

Venezuela's anti-U.S. leader Hugo Chavez began a major international tour on Sunday with a visit to the isolated former Soviet nation of Belarus, whose authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko is dubbed 'Europe's last dictator' by Washington.

Chavez, a leftist former army lieutenant colonel who accuses the United States of seeking to invade his oil-rich South American nation, is also to go to Russia, a key arms supplier, and to Qatar, Iran, Vietnam and Mali.

Chavez flew into the Belarusian capital Minsk in the evening; he was to hold official talks with Lukashenko the next day, the Foreign Ministry said.

Chavez's older brother Adan last month visited Minsk and proposed forming a common front against the U.S. as well as holding an international conference to set up a court to try U.S. President George W. Bush. Adan Chavez, Venezuela's ambassador to Cuba, described the United States as a "common enemy."

"I have come here to conclude a unity pact. Here we see a model of the social state that we are beginning to create," Chavez said at the airport. "We feel ourselves to be brothers."

Chavez flew to Belarus from Argentina, where he participated in a South American trade summit. He and Cuban leader Fidel Castro rallied thousands of leftist sympathizers, railing against U.S.-backed free market policies they blame for many of Latin America's woes.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director who is an open admirer of the old Soviet Union, has been in power since 1994, quashing dissent, jailing opponents and extending his time in office through votes widely considered illegitimate.

The United States and European Union slapped financial sanctions and a visa ban on Lukashenko and other top officials to protest his victory in March presidential elections, which the opposition denounced as fraudulent.

Lukashenko, whose regime has become an international pariah, charges that the U.S. and other Western nations are trying to overthrow him.

Lukashenko's spokesman Pavel Liogky told The Associated Press that Venezuela was a "strategic partner" for Belarus.

"In particular we share the view that the world shouldn't be unipolar," he said, referring to U.S. global dominance.

Chavez's program during the 24-hour visit includes a tour of a military academy and the "Stalin Line" — a network of World War II-era defense installations restored by Lukashenko's government — where he will be offered the chance to test his firing skills.

The Belarusian spokesman said that 7 agreements would be signed, including on military-technical cooperation and trade and economic ties.

Bilateral trade was just under $16 million in 2005.

In Moscow, where Chavez is expected late Monday, the highlight of the Venezuelan leader's visit will be a signing ceremony for a series of Russian weapons contracts.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Friday that Russia had agreed to supply Venezuela with 30 Sukhoi SU-30 jets and 30 helicopters for more than $1 billion.

Despite Washington's objections, Venezuela is already buying 100,000 Russian-made AK-103 assault rifles and hopes to sign an agreement to set up factories on Venezuelan soil to produce Kalashnikov assault rifles under license.

Chavez has used surging oil revenues to modernize Venezuela's military, signing multi-billion defense deals with countries including Russia and Spain.

U.S. officials deny any plans to invade Venezuela, and accuse Chavez of becoming increasingly authoritarian and posing a threat to stability in Latin America.