Belarus has been all the rage in Brussels in recent weeks. First the 27 EU ambassadors, then 27 foreign ministers, and last Friday, 27 prime ministers and presidents busied themselves with the question "Can a country run by a dictator, with no functional opposition, very little free media, and a penchant for locking up dissenters -- be in the EU's Eastern Partnership?"
For now, the answer is yes
. The EU summit on March 19-20 put Belarus on the list of invitees, although with conditions attached.
Which prompts the question (at least outside the halls of power in Brussels): what was so special about Belarus?
Because at least three of a total of six invitees are not exactly a world away from Minsk. Azerbaijan, for example, could pass for Minsk-on-the-Caspian-Sea
with three journalists in jail, its more than two dozen political prisoners, the absence of free and fair elections, and a president without a fixed term limit.
Or take Armenia
. Diplomats in Brussels say its nearly 80 political prisoners were employed as an argument by some of those backing a more lenient take on Minsk.
Or take Moldova, where democratic reforms are anywhere but in the ascendant.
Yet Azerbaijan's place in the Eastern Partnership has never been really controversial. Last Monday, I got the chance to ask the EU's external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner why that is so.
After a regulation account of the EU's good work on the ground, what the commissioner offered was that it was the "style" of President Ilham Aliyev's diplomacy that makes the difference.
This sums up a paradigm change within the EU, which became apparent last fall, when first Uzbek sanctions were largely dropped and then Belarus was suddenly brought in from the cold.
The shortest way to securing values is now held to be from the top down. What Brussels is betting on is that as long as eastern leaders keep talking something will trickle down.
-- Ahto Lobjakas