The Belarusian capital Minsk is to be the site of key decisions in the Ukraine conflict. President Alexander Lukashenko appears neutral, but appearances are not always what they are stacked up to be.
"Don't worry about the event in Minsk," Alexander Lukashenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in the Russian resort of Sochi over the weekend. The summit of heads of state from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine planned for Wednesday in Minsk is well-organized, he said.
Lukashenko reminded Putin of previous meetings in the capital of Belarus of the so-called Ukraine contact group with representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "I've taken care of things the way you asked, there have been no complaints," Lukashenko said.
Flirting with Kyiv
Even ahead of Berlin, Minsk has become the most important place for diplomatic efforts in the Ukraine conflict. In late August 2014, Presidents Poroshenko and Putin met there for a first round of private talks. In September, representatives of the Kyiv government met with pro-Russian separatists from Eastern Ukraine in Minsk, and agreed on a peace plan of sorts. Back then, the leaders of the self-proclaimed people's republics Donetsk and Luhansk received indirect legitimization. These agreements have since been broken. The separatists have launched an offensive and the fighting in Eastern Ukraine is fierce.
It is no coincidence that Minsk has become a key negotiating venue. Belarus has positioned itself as neutral ever since the Ukraine conflict began about a year ago. At the end of February 2014, just before Russia annexed Crimea, Lukashenko spoke out in favor of keeping Ukraine's territorial integrity. Unlike Russia, he immediately recognized Ukraine's new executive. In May, Lukashenko promptly congratulated Ukraine's new President Petro Poroshenko on his election victory - and was invited to the inauguration in Kyiv. He visited the capital again at the end of December 2014 to negotiate with Poroshenko.
In reality, however, Lukashenko is a longtime and close ally of Russia. Few people will remember that in 1997, Russia and Belarus founded a joint state that formally still exists today.
Belarus and Russia are also founding members of the Eurasian Economic Union. The treaty came into force on January 1, 2015. While the two states regularly disagree on trade issues - just last year, Russia restricted food imports from Belarus, angering Lukashenko - Moscow and Minsk hold fast to their alliance.
The two states also closely cooperate in the military sector. Both are members in the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia operates a radar station and has stationed fighter jets and helicopters in Belarus. By 2016, Moscow wants to erect a military air base in the Belarusian city of Bobruisk, about 250 kilometers north of the Ukrainian border.
Support, not mediation
The most recent Belarusian "friendship" with Ukraine is by no means a new development, according to Astrid Sahm, an expert on Belarus and guest researcher at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).
"Despite his rejection of the so-called 'color revolutions', Lukashenko already had good contacts to Ukraine's president at the time, Viktor Yushchenko, after 2004," she told Deutsche Welle. That's the reason Ukraine asked Lukashenko for support after the change of power in Kyiv, she added.
Lukashenko says he prefers "support" to "mediation". "We're not peacemakers, and we didn't ask for the role," he said at a news conference in late January 2015.
Europe's "last dictator" socially acceptable once again
Russia remains silent in view of Lukashenko's conspicuously friendly course toward the new rulers in Kyiv. Observers suspect it's Moscow's way of keeping the line open for direct contact with Kyiv. A few Russian politicians, however, have accused Lukashenko of standing on the wrong side.
Abroad, Lukashenko apparently profits from his diplomatic services in the Ukraine conflict. The West views the authoritarian Belarusian President as "Europe's last dictator" and the EU has imposed sanctions against him and other members of the country's power elite. Now, the host of the peace talks is likely to shake hands with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany und President Francois Hollande of France.
And that's not all.
Latvia, which currently holds the European Union's rotating presidency, doesn't rule out inviting Lukashenko to the EU Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga in May. He has not been welcome at meetings of Europe's heads of state and government so far.
An invitation to Riga is bound to win Lukashenko points with the Belarusian people, too. Presidential elections are scheduled for September 2015, and the incumbent, who has held the position since 1994, plans to run for office once more.