Lukashenka - the Main Beneficiary of the Ukraine Talks in Minsk

Key participants of the Minsk meeting

On 26 August, Minsk was the centre of attention for the international community, attracting hundreds of international reporters. The Belarusian authorities hosted a meeting between the Eurasian "troika", the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and three EU commissioners.

The very fact that they are holding such a meeting in Minsk became a major foreign policy success for the Belarusian authorities. Lukashenka's regime has secured Minsk's role as a venue for discussing important regional issues.

The government found a way to participate in settling the Ukrainian crisis and broadening its lines of communication with the European Union.

Who Initiated the Talks: Minsk, Moscow or Kyiv?

Lukashenka first voiced the idea of holding multilateral talks, possibly involving the Ukrainian president, on 8 August.

During his meeting with Russian and Ukrainian Communist bosses Gennady Zyuganov and Petro Symonenko, he made public his plans to hold a series of meetings between "the presidents of Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine (if Ukraine agreed to them and there is no rejection) … to discuss fundamentally what is happening here."

During his bilateral meeting with Poroshenko on 26 August, Lukashenka said that the idea of meeting and discussing the implications of the association agreement had originally come from the Ukrainian president.

This may be partly true as Ukraine is indeed interested in overcoming Russian resistance to its economic integration with Europe. However, its hopes will never become reality until another major player finds it acceptable.

There are good reasons to believe that Vladimir Putin was the original instigator of this meeting in Minsk. In fact, just a day before, the Russian president called Lukashenka to discuss, among other things, the developments in the Ukrainian economy caused by the signing of the EU association agreement.

Vladimir Putin is merely using his Belarusian counterpart as an intermediary, to arrange his encounter with Petro Poroshenko under the guise of a trade-related meeting.

Deeply entrenched in an economic war with the West and facing a very real possibility of a military defeat in Eastern Ukraine, Putin may be coming to Minsk to seek a way to save face. Direct contact with Poroshenko, under the auspices of a multilateral event, may be a good start to finding an appropriate solution for Putin.

Better than Expected

Lukashenka has always emphatically denied his interest in becoming an intermediary in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. The excuse provided by Moscow was ideal for Lukashenka. Instead of being a mediator in talks that have a low probability of leading to a positive outcome, he has become a party to larger negotiations, with Belarusian interests directly at stake.

It took almost two weeks of extensive negotiations to arrange the summit in Minsk. Ukraine conditioned its agreement to take part in these talks on representatives from the EU taking part in them. Lukashenka first mentioned the possibility of this third-party participation in his phone call with Vladimir Putin on 13 August after having discussed it with the Ukrainian president a day prior.

Poroshenko's demands were also much to Lukashenka's liking. Without it, he could not dream of hosting three high-ranking EU officials in Minsk at a time when sanctions against his regime were still in full force.

The EU and the US introduced financial and visa sanctions against a large number of Belarusian officials and companies after the regime cracked down on the opposition in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election.

The last time an EU representative of this level visited Minsk was back in November 2010, when Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, came to the captial city before the presidential election took place. The format of the Minsk talks has far exceeded Lukashenka's original expectations.

Minsk as a Regional Hub of Diplomacy

Minsk has become a regular and habitual venue for regional Eastern European summits. Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev have already come to Minsk on several occasions as well as Petro Poroshenko's predecessors.

However, top level EU officials have never joined the leaders of these leading post-Soviet states in Minsk. Indeed, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Aston, Vice President of the European Commission and EU Energy Commissioner Günther Öttinger and EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht are the cream of the EU bureaucracy and their presence significantly raises the notoriety of the talks in Minsk.

This latest gathering may become an important step towards confirming Minsk as one among a handful of European cities which serve as a regular venue for international and regional talks. In the 1990s, Minsk became the capital of CIS and put itself forward for conducting the OSCE peace process for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The Belarusian capital also hosts the Court of the Eurasian Economic Community.

On 31 July, Minsk hosted a meeting of a tripartite contact group on Ukraine which included representatives of OSCE, Russia, Ukraine and, informally, the Russian-sponsored Ukrainian rebels. The decision to hold them in Minsk can be seen as recognition of Belarus' non-partisan status in a conflict where it is extremely difficult to remain neutral.

Belarus as the Main Beneficiary of the Ukraine Talks in Minsk

By becoming a participant in a meeting dedicated to clarifying the implications of the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine for the latter's trade with CIS countries, Belarus will be better positioned to protect its economic interests.

As of now, Minsk has a much better chance of influencing any of Russia's future potential retaliatory actions that would harm Belarus' trade with Ukraine. At the same time, it can discuss and address any genuine concerns it has arising from Ukraine's new status.

Belarus has also become one of the parities involved directly in the talks, a development which may eventually lead to the resolution of conflict between Ukraine and Russia. If the talks finally succeed, Minsk will be able to highlight its role in this process. Should they yield less favourable results, it will be difficult to present Lukashenka as a failed mediator.

Seizing the Moment to Improve Relations with Europe

The ultimate victory, in any case, is the result of Belarusian diplomacy, which has been successful in getting top EU commissioners to visit Minsk. Lukashenka was certainly delighted to hear the words of appreciation for his diplomatic initiative that came from EU's foreign minister Catherine Ashton at their meeting in Minsk.

Obviously, Ashton and her colleagues spent most of their time at the multilateral meeting. Still, the Belarusian president had the rare opportunity of having direct contact with senior EU officials. Alexander Lukashenka has definitely made use of his personal charisma to incite the European Union into thinking of softening its stance towards his regime.

Lukashenka's peace-making activity in the region is unlikely to serve as sufficient grounds for the EU to revise their current policy towards Belarus. Much still depends on the Belarusian authorities' willingness to take some steps that will be viewed as political concessions by the West (i.e. releasing all or most remaining political prisoners).

If the regime has the courage to take these initial steps, the EU may well reciprocate by abolishing or downgrading the current sanctions against it, taking into account the current regional context.

This window of opportunity before Lukashenka right now, at a time when both Russia and the West need good relations with Belarus, may not last long.

At this crucial juncture, Belarus has a chance to show the veracity of the old adage that wars are not necessarily won by those who participate in them.

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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