Europe's outcast Belarus unlikely star of Ukraine talks

Minsk (AFP) - Political pariah turned would-be peacemaker, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko will bask in the limelight this week when European leaders desperate to end the Ukraine war are expected to gather in Minsk.

Wednesday's planned summit of heads of state from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine is billed as a last-ditch chance to prevent an irreversible breakdown in attempts to resolve peacefully the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces.

But the event is also a rare chance for Lukashenko -- shunned by the West over his human rights record -- to come in from out of the diplomatic cold. The arrival of Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, would be the first visit to Belarus by a German leader since Adolf Hitler in World War II.

Lukashenko has been popularly branded in the West as Europe's last dictator. But with Western criticism now homing increasingly in on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko has won breathing space and a chance to play a constructive role.

"Though Belarus is not the focus of the visit by European leaders, it is extremely significant for the country," said historian Igor Kuznetsov. "It is a great honour for Minsk."

"Belarussian problems have gone on the back burner because of the war in Ukraine," said former lawmaker and opposition politician Alexander Dobrovolsky.

Lukashenko and many government officials are under US and EU travel bans and financial sanctions imposed in response to brutal crackdowns on protests.

- 'Playing two chessboards' -

In recent years Lukashenko expelled Swedish diplomats after activists in Sweden airdropped hundreds of teddy bears bearing pro-democracy slogans. In 2011 he arrested protesters for clapping at flash mob rallies.

All that makes Belarus an unusual site for hosting international peace talks.

"European leaders are forced to go to a country under sanctions," said Dobrovolsky. "The idea to come to Minsk emerged out of desperation."

Lukashenko, 60, has been in power for over two decades, bringing Belarus to international isolation and increased dependance on Russia.

But the crisis in neighbouring Ukraine has also exposed complications in the ex-Soviet republic's relationship with Moscow.

While Lukashenko met Putin in the Russian resort of Sochi this week to discuss Ukraine, he has also switched his Russian defence minister for a Belarussian and amended the law on what his country considers a military threat -- a move interpreted by many as a countermeasure against possible Russian invasion.

Although his domestic rights record is dismal, Lukashenko can seem moderate alongside more radical Russian officials who have called for occupying Kiev and made veiled threats of using Russia's nuclear arsenal.

"Russian ultra-patriots consider Belarus the next after Ukraine," Moscow-based analyst Konstantin Kalachev said of growing calls for the "return" of eastern regions of Belarus to Russia.

"Lukashenko is playing on two chessboards" as the West criticises his rights record, while Moscow threatens to swallow Belarus, he said.

Having all but destroyed political opposition over the last five years, Lukashenko is likely to use his high-profile mediator status to his advantage ahead of presidential elections in November, said observers and critics.

- Image boost -

"If Merkel and Hollande come to Minsk, they will have to meet with Lukashenko, and that will be used by state media to boost his image among the public," said political analyst Andrei Fyodorov.

"These Minsk talks will go down in history books," he added.

"Lukashenko will build the image of a peacemaker who does not have problems with the international community," said top opposition leader Anatoliy Lebedko.

Lebedko, who spent more than three months in jail after a brutal dispersal of a rally protesting Lukashenko's reelection in 2010, said that because of Putin, Lukashenko is no longer a pariah.

"As the hooligan of Europe, Lukashenko cannot compete for Europe's attention with Putin, whose name has become the synonym for war."