All eyes were fixed on the recent negotiations in Minsk. Would Vladmir shake hands with Petro? Would Angela and Francois be able to arrange a cease fire to end the brutal fighting in eastern Ukraine? Would Ukraine be able to join NATO and the EU in the future? Would the United States send weapons (with advisors?) to the Ukrainian army? Would the Ukrainian economy be given a shot in the arm?
Amidst all these questions, with hundreds of journalists hanging on to every word, every gesture throughout the all-night negotiations, one question was not asked: Why in Minsk? The obvious answer is that the first protocol, signed in September 2014, had been agreed upon in Minsk. The Minsk Protocol, a roadmap for peace in eastern Ukraine, had gotten nowhere. But that’s not the point. The point is that Minsk had become the place for the Russian-Ukrainian talks; Belarus is now the place for Russia and Ukraine to negotiate their differences and the place for Angela, Francois, Laurent and all the others to convene peace talks.
Why Minsk? There is no history of neutrality there. There is no history of third-party arbitration, no major international organizations, no humanitarian institution dedicated to relieving human suffering. There is no history of Belarus being the president of a major international organization, even on a rotating basis. No, the history of Belarus is far from that of Geneva and Switzerland.
Why Minsk? Unreported and barely noticed, the President of Belarus was omnipresent during the negotiations. Alexander Lukashenko, an authoritarian dictator, is the President of Belarus. He has run the country since 1994 and has been called “the last dictator in Europe”. Among other human rights violations, Belarus is the last country in Europe to retain the death penalty. Lukashenko greatly profited from the publicity surrounding the talks. Belarus, all of a sudden, has become the Switzerland of Eastern Europe and Minsk the Geneva. Lukashenko has become the gracious host.
Allow me to trace some Lukashenko history. And this will be personal. In 2010 following a rigged presidential election, several protestors were arrested among the thousands who peacefully marched in the streets of Minsk. Among them was Andrei Sannikov, a leader of the opposition, himself a candidate to be president (he received the second highest percentage of the popular votes), a former deputy foreign minister, and my friend. In the early 1990s, Andrei headed the Belarusian delegation on Nuclear and Conventional Weapons Armament Negotiations in Geneva while also serving as the Belarusian diplomat in Switzerland. That is when and where I met him. I also visited him in Minsk while he worked for the government.
Andrei resigned from the government in 1996 to protest a referendum that extended the power and time in office of Lukashenko. He co-founded Charter ’97, an organization that strives to promote democracy in Belarus. Sannikov also initiated the civil campaign European Belarus which advocates joining Belarus with the European Union. In 2005 he was awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize, an award that celebrates accomplishments in human rights.
In 2010, Sannikov was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of organizing mass disturbances against the government. The US State Department described his trial as “clearly politically motivated”. In detention, he was beaten, kept in harsh conditions and was unable to receive visits. His wife, a journalist, was also arrested. Threats were made against the family; Belarusian authorities attempted to seize Sannikov’s son who was being looked after by grandparents. His campaign press secretary and fellow activist had been found hanged at his summer house months before. Sannikov was finally released in 2012 after 16 months in detention following repeated calls for his freedom by European countries and an international campaign.
Peace in Ukraine is hanging by a thread. Angela and Francois need to be commended for all their efforts as should Heidi Tagliavini, the OSCE, and all who are trying to find a workable solution to a complicated problem. But if a solution is to be found, let history not record it as based on the Minsk Protocol. The word Minsk should not be associated with any peace process as long as Lukashenko is in office. Minsk is not Geneva. Belarus is not Switzerland. Voices like those of Andrei Sannikov have suffered too much to let the brutal dictator get any credit for anything positive.