Belarus Welcomes Top EU Leaders: A Rare Show

Angela Merkel in Minsk. Photo: Reuters.

The leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine agreed to hold peace talks in Minsk on Wednesday, 11 February, in an effort to avert a full-scale war in Ukraine.

The last German and French leaders to visit Minsk were Adolph Hitler in 1941 and Georges Pompidou in 1973. In the twenty years of Alexander Lukashenka's reign in Belarus, only two European leaders (Silvio Berlusconi and Dalia Grybauskaitė) set their foot in Minsk.

As the international community eagerly awaits positive results of the peace talks in Minsk, the Belarusian public is also impatient to see whether Lukashenka will be able to charm his European guests in the year of the presidential election in Belarus.

Unexpected News?

During their phone conference on Sunday, 8 February, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko chose Minsk as a venue of their 'Normandy format' meeting.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was the first to call his Belarusian counterpart in order to confirm Minsk's willingness to host the talks. A few minutes later, Alexander Lukashenka, on a short skiing holiday in Sochi, discussed the subject at a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin:

Do not worry and come. We will organise everything... We will do everything we can here in Belarus to find a way out of the situation [people in Ukraine] have faced.

The meeting in Minsk on 11 February can be canceled at the last moment if the parties' experts fail to agree on a basic framework of the peace deal. Three presidents and a chancellor will not come to the Belarusian capital to inaugurate another failure. In fact, the 'Normandy Four' already abandoned their much-publicised decision to hold a similar meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan on 15 January.

Why Minsk?

Ironically, less than two weeks ago Alexander Lukashenka spoke strongly against the Normandy format. During his 'open dialogue' with the press, he blurted out:

I can't imagine yet any format for negotiations other than Minsk [format]… Most importantly, the proposed [Normandy] format… is to happen at the highest level… They will make general political statements; we heard enough of them.

At that time, Lukashenka was extremely jealous of the negotiating parties' decision to accept President Nazarbayev's invitation and meet in Astana. Evidently, he cannot care less about the format as long as Minsk remains the site and symbol of the peace talks on Ukraine.

Minsk's symbolic significance may have played a role in the decision of the 'Normandy Four'. The agreements based on the Minsk Protocol led to a real and relatively lasting reduction in violence in Eastern Ukraine. These agreements remain a reference point for further talks between the conflicting parties even if Kyiv, Donetsk and Moscow tend to disagree on their interpretation.

Merkel and Hollande understand that Lukashenka will reap the fruit of their visit to Minsk

The logistical and political convenience of Minsk may have mattered more. Minsk is much closer in flight time to Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow and Paris than Astana. Lukashenka's neutrality in the Ukrainian crisis and his genuine willingness to help achieve its speedy resolution also comfort Ukraine and Russia.

Merkel and Hollande may be less happy with Minsk's choice as a venue for talks. They understand that the regime in Belarus will reap the fruit of their visit to the country. However, it looks like that the West is willing to pay this price to reach a peace deal in Ukraine.

Is Lukashenka Happy to Have Guests?

The decision to hold the 'Normandy Four' summit in Minsk suits Lukashenka to perfection, both in his international and domestic agenda.

Domestically, it plays well into his hand on the eve of the presidential election. He is no longer a European pariah. World leaders come to Belarus in recognition of his peace-making efforts and the country's stability and security. Europe needs Minsk to settle conflicts on the continent.

European Troika, Poroshenko and Putin in MinskInternationally, the visit of Merkel and Hollande extends the window of opportunity opened initially by the meeting between the Eurasian "troika", Petro Poroshenko and three EU commissioners held in Minsk on 26 August 2014. This time, the Belarusian president gets direct access to the true European decision-makers.

Alexander Lukashenka has always believed in his personal charisma and ability to make a good impression by his seemingly frank and outspoken nature during personal encounters. However, he rarely got an opportunity to test his "charms" on European leaders.

Any Experience with Visitors from Europe?

Indeed, the regime's disregard for human rights, rule of law and electoral standards has long prevented most European leaders from receiving the Belarusian president in their capitals or travelling to see him in Minsk.

Since 1994, only two EU leaders visited Belarus

Alexander Lukashenka, together with many other officials, are under US and EU travel bans imposed in response to brutal crackdown on the opposition. The only realistic opportunity for him to approach Western leaders has so far been restricted to chance encounters in meeting halls and corridors of the UN, OSCE or other international fora. However, he is a rare guest there as well.

Belarusian diplomats made it their priority to break this self-imposed wall of isolation, so far with very limited success. In twenty years of Lukashenka's reign in Belarus, only two leaders of EU countries made their way to Minsk.

What Brought Berlusconi and Grybauskaitė to Minsk?

Berlusconi in MinskOn 30 November 2009, Silvio Berlusconi, the then Italian prime minister, came to Minsk on a six-hour visit. The Italian leader and his Belarusian host signed a number of bilateral agreements and discussed trade relations and humanitarian cooperation. Alexander Lukashenka was not slack at publicly interpreting Berlusconi's visit as an "eloquent gesture of support to Belarus in the international arena".

Both Italian and Belarusian opposition groups criticised Silvio Berlusconi for his overtures towards the authoritarian regime. One cannot be sure of the criticism' effect on the eccentric Italian politician. Anyway, his promise to lead in person a group of Italian executives to Minsk remained unfulfilled.

Grybauskaite in MinskA year later, on 20 October 2010, President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė made a one-day working trip to Minsk, shortly before the presidential election in Belarus. Her staff explained the visit by the desire to remind her Belarusian counterpart about the importance of free and democratic elections for future relations between Belarus and the EU.

Independent experts believed that two other motives were behind Grybauskaitė's travel to Minsk: promotion of Lithuania's trade and transit interests and an attempt to bring Belarus further away from Russia, as the visit happened in the midst of an information war between Moscow and Minsk.

Outsider in His Own Residence?

For Lukashenka, the meeting of the 'Normandy Four' in Minsk is an excellent opportunity to join in top-level international diplomacy. He can certainly expect having brief bilateral meetings with Merkel and Hollande. Lukashenka may want to use these meetings to strengthen the trend on his "acceptability" in Europe.

However, unlike during the August meeting between the European and Eurasian "troikas", the Belarusian ruler can hardly count on a seat at the negotiation table in his own residence when the 'Normandy Four' will meet. Diplomacy is not where Lukashenka scores. He will have to wait for the meeting's results behind the closed doors, like everybody else.

Igar Gubarevich is a senior analyst of the Ostrogorski Centre in Minsk. For a number of years he has been working in various diplomatic positions at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.

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