Brussels makes moves to bring 'Europe's last dictator' in from the cold

20.02.2015 13:53

Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko’s
hosting of Ukraine peace talks may be
having a side effect – thawing relations
between the European Union and a man
the west calls “Europe’s last dictator”.
A meeting in Minsk on Friday with the
foreign minister of neighbouring Latvia,
travelling in his capacity as chair of the EU
ministerial council, marked another step
in what diplomats say is an accelerating
process that could see some easing of
sanctions on Lukashenko and even an
invitation to a May summit.
“We’d like to do all we can to give a new
momentum to relations with Belarus,”
Latvia’s Edgars Rinkevics told his host.
Lukashenko told the minister, who chairs
EU meetings until June: “If Latvia helps us
come even closer to the EU during its
presidency, we won’t be the only ones who
are very grateful.”
Unlike Ukraine and other ex-Soviet
republics tempted by free trade with the
EU, Lukashenko has remained broadly
aligned with Russia, signing up for
President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union
but also criticising Moscow’s actions in
Brussels is in no rush to repeat the
embrace of Ukraine which led to Russia
seizing Crimea
He has shown no haste to address
complaints over electoral and human
rights abuses at home that have seen him
and some 200 of his supporters banned
from travelling to the EU since 2011.
But EU diplomats said discussions are
under way on how to improve relations.
And internal document setting out
possible steps was agreed by EU member
states last month. They said Lukashenko
will have to reform. However, Brussels is
in no rush to repeat the kind of embrace of
Ukraine which led to its president being
ousted a year ago and Russia seizing
Nonetheless, Lukashenko’s efforts to help
in resolving the conflict in eastern
Ukraine, including hosting peace talks last
week involving French president Francois
Hollande and German chancellor Angela
Merkel, have raised a possibility of
“There are growing signs that Belarus is
opening up to Europe. Lukashenko has
been very helpful during the Minsk
negotiations,” one EU source said.
“Member states are discussing whether the
EU should unfreeze relations with
Lukashenko, 60, has let it be known he
would like to attend a summit between EU
countries and six ex-Soviet states planned
for Riga in May, EU sources say. To go, he
would need a waiver of the EU travel ban
that was renewed only three months ago.
Latvia, which hosts the Eastern
Partnership Summit on 21-22 May, has said
it is willing to invite Lukashenko. But some
EU states are opposed. Rinkevics said it
was too early to say at precisely what level
Belarus would be represented at the
However, speaking to reporters after
meeting Lukashenko, he said of the
summit: “We reached an understanding
that it will be an opportunity where we
can broaden relations with Belarus.”
EU officials are well aware, after his 21
years in power in Minsk, of Lukashenko’s
reputation as a wily operator adept at
playing off the EU and Russia for his own
advantage. And it still bears scars from the
last such summit, in Vilnius in 2013, which
was a crucial moment in Ukraine’s descent
into crisis.