The German foreign minister's visit was a risky undertaking. A politician can't expect to present pretty photos and upbeat declarations from the last stronghold of communist rule in Europe, where the death penalty is still applied and human rights are routinely trampled upon. As far as human rights are concerned, Guido Westerwelle travelled right into the lion's den. Alexander Lukashenko is an outcast among European leaders, a man who rules his country with an iron fist and whose secret police do not shy away from killing opponents of the regime. So why has the German foreign minister chosen to meet with such a man? And why now?
The former Soviet republic with its 10 million inhabitants is an important country, it borders on the European Union and deserves attention for its economic potential. Safeguarding existing routes of transport for oil and gas shipments as well as trade cooperation make it advisable to maintain a dialogue with the rulers in Minsk. While at the same time, human rights should not be forgotten, it is an opportune time to exert pressure of the sort Westerwelle has exerted during his visit.
Lukashenko has called early presidential elections in mid-December, a vote in which the country's leadership can show how serious it is about free elections and pluralism. Bearing that in mind, Westerwelle's talks, also with other contenders for the presidency, send the right signal.
Lukashenko needs EU support
Due to its tense relations with Russia, it is an opportune time for Belarus to seek closer ties with the EU, maybe even membership in the Council of Europe. The EU foreign ministers have recognized this quest; accordingly, they loosened entry bans imposed on Belarus politicians in 2004, although the sanctions generally remain in force.
In his talks with Lukashenko, Guido Westerwelle is likely to have repeated offers of cooperation - provided, of course, that the Belarus leadership shows a real and comprehensible willingness to reform. There can only be constructive relations and membership in the Council of Europe for Belarus, if elections in December are more free and fair than was the case in 2006. Lukashenko has promised the German foreign minister that the vote will be handled properly - but skepticism remains. Registering all of the opposition candidates as well as independent election observers would be a first step.
In addition, Belarus would have to start functioning in accordance with the rule of law. A moratorium and eventually a ban on capital punishment could move the country's value system closer to that of Europe.
In 21st century Europe, isolation should no longer be a political tool of choice. And it needn't be if Minsk takes the offer of dialogue seriously. Westerwelle's sensitive visit is a bold step towards cooperation, well coordinated with the country's EU neighbors Lithuania and Poland. Now it's time for Belarus to follow up its vague pledges with concrete action.
Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (db)
Editor: Chuck Penfold