The EU has invited Belarusian leader Aleksander Lukashenko to a summit in Brussels in a move deemed “scandalous” by some.
If he comes to the so called Eastern Partnership summit on 24 November, it would be the first-ever visit to the EU capital of a man who is still often called Europe’s “last dictator”.
Lukashenko’s 23-year rule has been marked by the murders and jailing of opposition leaders, rigged elections, and goon-squad beatings of peaceful protesters on the streets of Minsk.
But a spokesman for European Council head Donald Tusk confirmed to EUobserver on Tuesday (10 October) that “Belarus has been invited to participate in the Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels in the same manner as the other partner countries”.
“Who will represent Belarus at the summit is a matter for Minsk to decide,” he said.
The summits, which take place every two years, are designed to build closer relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Belarus, a close ally of Russia, normally attends at the level of its foreign minister.
But an EU official noted that Europe lifted its visa ban on Lukashenko and 169 other Belarusians in February.
The official said this was done “against the background of steps taken by Belarus over the preceding two years that contributed to improving EU-Belarus relations”.
They said Lukashenko had freed political prisoners, did not beat up anyone during the last elections, and had resumed EU human rights talks.
“Further development of relations between the EU and Belarus will depend on Belarus taking further tangible steps in strengthening democracy and human rights”, the official said.
In due time
Speaking the same day, Belarus foreign minister Vladimir Makei said Lukashenko would decide “in due time” whether to come to Brussels, but that he first expected “high-ranking [EU] officials” to come and see him in Minsk.
The Belarusian embassy in Brussels also told EUobserver that EU relations were “getting better”.
But Tusk’s invitation was immediately dubbed “scandalous” by Petras Austrevicius, a Lithuanian MEP.
Austrevicius, who has worked closely with the Belarusian opposition for two decades, said activists, who still faced temporary detentions, house arrests, and other forms of harassment, would feel demoralised by the EU’s red carpet treatment.
“The opposition will no longer have an argument why they are fighting against his regime if he is being welcomed in the EU capital,” the MEP said.
An EU diplomat also voiced concern that if the Belarusian “dictator” came, he would steal attention from other leaders, from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, who really do want to align with the EU.
“The whole summit would turn into a Lukashenko show,” he said.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish leader and Nato head, who now advises the Ukrainian president, said “dialogue” with Lukashenko “could be beneficial for Europe” because it could weaken the Minsk-Moscow axis.
“The future of his [Lukashenko’s] relationship with Moscow is not at all clear at this stage,” he told EUobserver on Tuesday.
“It [his visit to Brussels] couldn’t do any harm. It’s an Eastern Partnership summit and, like it or not, Belarus is part of the EU neighbourhood,” he said.
Hrant Kostanyan, an expert at Ceps, a think tank in Brussels, said there was no reason not to invite Lukashenka so long as the EU continued to invite Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Alyiev.
“I could spend an hour or more talking about human rights problems in Belarus, but the situation in Azerbaijan is much more serious,” he said.
“In Azerbaijan, you get years in jail for being in the opposition, but in Belarus, these days, you get a few days,” he said.
“If you’re going to invite Aliyev, you might as well invite Lukashenko, and if you don’t invite either of them, then what’s the point of having a summit?”, he said.
Aliyev, who is also invited in November, has so far declined to say if he will come.
Kostanyan said this was because he was trying to “blackmail” the EU to include more pro-Azerbaijan language on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict in a joint summit declaration.
Past summit declarations have formally “acknowledged” the “aspirations” of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine to one day join the EU.
But Kostanyan said this year might be the first time that the phrase is redacted from the text due to pressure from anti-enlargement states Germany and The Netherlands.
EU ambassadors aim to finalise the text in Brussels on Wednesday before sending it to the six former Soviet capitals for their approval.
Rasmussen said that if the EU cut out its “acknowledgement” it could harm prospects for reform.
“I sense, in some EU capitals, a Ukraine fatigue and, at the same time, I sense, in Kiev, an EU fatigue,” he said.
“We are at a crucial point [in Ukraine’s future development] and this is really the wrong time to demonstrate fatigue. Right now, the EU should voice optimism and try to reinvigorate the Eastern Partnership,” he said.