In May, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko delivered remarks on an unusual stage—the Minsk Dialogue Forum, a nongovernmental conference focused this year on security in Eastern Europe. The conference was sponsored by the very same Western foundations that Lukashenko accused of fomenting revolution and tried to expel from Belarus just over a decade ago. At this year’s conference, however, Lukashenko proposed that the West and the East calm down and talk to each other in a “Helsinki 2” format. And why not make Minsk the venue for the negotiations?

Lukashenko’s idea was not a spur-of-the-moment, one-time proposal. For several years, Minsk has taken every opportunity to offer the post-Soviet region and the world its peacemaking services, beginning in 2014 with the Minsk meetings of the Trilateral Contact Group on the conflict in Ukraine. The Minsk Accords in 2015 marked Lukashenko’s peacemaking breakthrough, when he hosted the presidents of Ukraine and Russia. The leaders of France and Germany were present, and they likely would not have visited “Europe’s last dictatorship” for any other reason.

Soon after, Belarus offered to host Nagorno-Karabakh peace negotiations. Since 1992, the OSCE’s conflict mediation group on the Karabakh conflict has been known as the Minsk Group, but it does not convene the meetings in Minsk. With its invitation, Belarus sought to actualize its symbolic connection to the group, although hosting negotiations between Baku and Yerevan turned out to be too ambitious.

Lukashenko also offered to send Belarusian peacemakers to Donbas. Although Minsk has only a few hundred professional peacekeepers, Belarus proposed sending thousands of soldiers. Not surprisingly, Kiev reacted coolly to the idea of peacekeepers from an army in a military alliance with Russia.

Belarus has defended its peacemaking role in the region. When Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev suggested in his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump that the Ukraine talks be moved from Minsk to Astana to give them new life, Belarus’s reaction was sharp. Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei remarked that the talks could be moved to Antarctica so long as they were productive, while Lukashenko suggested that Nazarbayev was “itching to get a Nobel peace prize.” But there is a grain of truth in Nazarbayev’s words. The Minsk negotiations are losing steam, though not due to the location, but because of a lack of faith in them.

Sensing dwindling recognition of its potential as a peacemaker, Minsk launched yet another peace initiative. Over the past year, Lukashenko and other Belarusian officials have proposed the idea of a new “Helsinki 2” format at every international forum.

Belarus’s Helsinki 2 idea is reasonable in that it proposes a forum for negotiating new rules of the road at a time when the post-World War II international order and the rules of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act are crumbling. New rules can only be developed by the big world powers—the United States, the EU, Russia, and China. 

Yet the notion of a Helsinki 2 faces a severe credibility test. The West does not accept Russia as an equal power and rejects Moscow’s aspirations to influence its neighbors. Russia is not ready to shed these ambitions. In both Russia and the West, domestic political dynamics favor attacking and repelling the enemy, rather than finding common ground.

In this environment, not only is rebuilding the international order supremely difficult, but even preventing escalation and rebuilding trust is challenging. There is not even an agenda for a potential Helsinki 2.

Finally, Minsk may work well as a platform for talks on Ukraine, given its geographic location, linguistic ties, and reassurances for leaders of the self-proclaimed Donbas Republic, who can enter Belarus without fear of arrest. But outside the region, especially in Washington, Minsk is still perceived as deferential to Moscow, despite Belarus’s occasional tilt toward the West. If the time comes for a momentous global summit on the lines of Helsinki 2, there are many other alternative locations where neutrality will not be in doubt.

Other than from the OSCE—the organization born out of the original Helsinki talks—Lukashenko has received no response about a new Helsinki process. Minsk understands that Helsinki 2 is presently unrealistic, yet it continues its efforts. 

Officially, Minsk explains its peacemaking outreach in terms of its position as a country between East and West. And it has much to gain as a promoter of peace: Minsk has earned previously unimaginable freedom of maneuver with both the West and Russia thanks to its mediating role.

Despite Lukashenko’s authoritarianism, Belarus’s peacemaking image has facilitated thawing relations with Brussels and Washington. Lukashenko has long envied Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which have not been plagued by the West’s sanctions and moralizing, even though they have displayed more despotic tendencies. Those countries’ oil and gas riches have proved to be an instrument to exert regional influence and a shield against outside pressure. Now Minsk is using its situational neutrality and peacemaking in a similar way to muffle human rights criticism.

Furthermore, by highlighting peace and compromise in his speeches, Lukashenko casts himself in a more positive light than Russian President Vladimir Putin—while Russia appears to create problems and divisions, Belarus is trying to help solve them. By playing up this distinction, Belarus looks less like Moscow’s obedient vassal.

Yet peacemaking rhetoric also helps Minsk’s relations with Moscow. Since Belarus’s mediating role is generally only hypothetical, Lukashenko can remain a formal ally of Russia while pursuing an independent foreign policy. By assuming the role of a mediator, Minsk can legitimize its periodic splits from Moscow and deny Russian accusations of betrayal and geopolitical disloyalty. After all, a mediator is obliged to assume the middle ground between two sides. 

Thanks to its peacemaking initiatives, Belarus has increased this valuable political maneuverability. During the Minsk Dialogue Forum, the ex-secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a high-ranking NATO official hurled mutual accusations at one another. Sitting between them, Lukashenko could declare that both sides were right in their own way.

Lukashenko can now combine what used to be incompatible: improving relations with the West and authoritarianism, participation in alliances with Russia and maintaining an independent foreign policy position. Given peacemaking’s geopolitical expediency, the Belarusian government will work hard to preserve its newfound niche as a mediator. We should expect further Belarusian efforts to promote this image. Peacemaking could become a permanent feature of Belarus’s international identity.

By:
  • Artyom Shraibman