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Move Over, Geneva, Minsk Is The World's New Diplomatic Capital

  • Daisy Sindelar

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Minsk on February 11 for the first day of the Minsk II talks.

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (right) welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Minsk on February 11 for the first day of the Minsk II talks.

Perhaps you've never traveled to southwestern Ohio. But you've probably heard of the Dayton accords, the 1995 agreement that ended the Bosnian war.

Same with Schengen, a tiny wine-making village in Luxembourg and the birthplace of European visa-free travel. Or Maastricht, the capital of the Dutch province of Limburg, where the treaty leading to the creation of the European Union was signed.

Now, the capital of Belarus has become the latest city whose claim to fame may remain forever tied to a much-discussed act of diplomacy: the Minsk I and Minsk II cease-fire agreements aimed at bringing peace to eastern Ukraine.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, Minsk's notoriety rested in large part on its Soviet time-capsule qualities and the bad behavior of its entrenched leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who oversaw the beating and arrest of hundreds of opposition activists following his controversial reelection in 2010.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- "Europe's last dictator" -- in 1999

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- "Europe's last dictator" -- in 1999

But for the past several months, Lukashenka has gone from "Europe's last dictator" to gracious host-with-the-most.

Speaking to Russian television on the second day of the Minsk II talks on February 12, Lukashenka ebulliently recounted the locally sourced menu -- omelets, cheese, milk products -- served to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, and frenemy Vladimir Putin, who had just pulled a largely fruitless all-nighter.

"They drank several buckets of coffee to sustain their bearings," he added. "My business was to fetch ammunition, so to say -- to ensure a good mood, to provide food, to arrange drinks."

(According to the analytical firm Topsy, "Minsk" that day received more than 325,000 mentions on Russian and English-language social media, more than either "Putin" or "Merkel.")

Until recently, the prospect of Minsk flipping omelets for some of the world's most powerful leaders would have been unthinkable. Lukashenka and nearly 200 other officials have spent years under a European travel ban following the 2010 election fracas.

The ban has forced the Belarusian leader to content himself with trips to China, Latin America, and the Vatican. But Lukashenka's new role as a dutiful diplomatic host has raised expectations that ties between Belarus and the West may begin to normalize.

EU member Latvia, the bloc's current president, has indicated it may invite Lukashenka to an Eastern Partnership summit it is hosting in May. And Minsk's ties with Beijing have paid off in ways that even the EU can't ignore -- like the new "silk route" railway line, passing through Belarus, that links China to Western Europe.

In the meantime, Minsk -- which in 2014 successfully hosted the Ice Hockey World Championships -- has continued to expand its hosting duties at home.

Belarus's Foreign Minister Uladzimer Makei last month held talks with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. This week, Makei is hosting the North Korean foreign minister, Ri Su-yong, a meeting aimed at "building up constructive relations."

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