A cargo train pulled into Madrid in December, filled with cheap Christmas decorations made in the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu. The contents of the train were nothing special but its 6,200 mile, three-week journey through China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Poland, Germany, France and Spain was a turning point.
This is part of the new "silk route” trading paths linking mainland China with Europe, through rail, shipping routes and road. The train route, faster than a boat and cheaper than a truck, is a crucial one for Germany.
It is the ideal way to move German exports, including electronics, vehicles, and medical equipment, to China.
Many of these routes will pass through a small country wedged between West Europe and Russia, nestled up against Ukraine and the Baltic states, which bears the dubious title of being ruled by the “last dictator in Europe:” Belarus.
Its president, Alexander Lukashenko, has ruled the country with an iron grip for 21 years, taking advice, orders and aid from the Kremlin. The European Union has kept Belarus at arms length, occasionally using sanctions and protesting its suppression of human rights.
But now Belarus' strategic location along the new trade route, and the fact that it shares a long, porous border with Ukraine, means Belarus can no longer be ignored. Many Belarusians have relatives in Ukraine, particularly in the war-torn east, and the government is bracing itself for a spillover of the conflict.
Mr. Lukashenko has taken pains in recent months to mend relations with the West.
In early February, he hosted ceasefire talks on Ukraine. The sight of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's President François Hollande shaking hands with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the vast marble halls of Mr. Lukashenko’s presidential palace in Minsk was a major boost for the isolated leader.
As things stand, Mr. Lukashenko cannot attend a similar summit in the European Union. He and 200 of his supporters have been banned from traveling to the E.U. since 2011, a response to Belarus' massive crackdown on civil society during presidential elections in 2010.
But there are signs that the E.U.'s cold shoulder to Belarus may be thawing.
The European Union will host a summit on eastern Europe in the Latvian capital Riga in May, and Latvia’s government has said it is happy to invite Mr. Lukashenko if the E.U. agrees to at least temporarily lift the travel ban.
The E.U. says that may be possible.
But that has irked several Belarusian opposition leaders, who warn the European Union is sending mixed messages to the country.
On one hand, it is criticizing the regime’s authoritarian nature and demanding that the government free political prisoners, and on the other, it is giving Mr. Lukashenko legitimacy by making him part of its international summitry.
“Europe does not have a strategy against Belarus,” Andrei Sannikov, a former deputy foreign minister who stood as a presidential candidate in Belarus’ contested 2010 elections, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “It has always been the goal of Mr. Lukashenko to get the E.U. to accept him for what he is - a pro-Russian dictator - and he is getting his way.”
Belarus is, they say, at the same stage of its development two years ago -- dominated by a repressive pro-Russian government, but with a growing population wanting closer ties to Europe.
Mr. Sannikov, who was beaten and imprisoned for 16 months after coming second in rigged elections in 2010, argues that repression in Belarus is stronger than ever. The government has passed laws that will ban Internet proxies that allow users to get around national restrictions on Internet content by pretending to be based in another country.
These proxies are the only way most people in Belarus can access foreign media on the Web. Without them, they will be reliant on state-controlled, mainly pro-Russian channels. Belarus also agreed to let Russia deploy eight more fighter jets to the Bananovichi Air Base in Belarus to join four already there, raising the Russian military presence on the border with Lithuania and Poland.
At the same time, there is a significant community in Belarus, mainly middle-class, well-educated professionals, who want change, and who are seeking closer links with the new Ukrainian government and the European Union.
It is not surprising Mr. Lukashenko wants more ties with the West.
Around half of Belarus’ exports of trucks, tractors and industrial machinery go to Russia and the fall of the ruble and slowdown in economic demand has hit his country hard. Belarus has grown unhappy with the way the Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union, a post-Soviet trading bloc coordinated by Russia, has been used to exclude and punish Ukraine.
Video: Protests after rigged elections in Minsk, Belarus, 2010.
Belarus still relies on Russia. The country receives around $1 billion in aid each year, but also trades heavily with Ukraine.
“Ukraine is as important for Belarus as Russia,” said Siarhei Bohdan, a one-time Ukrainian opposition activist who is pursuing a doctorate at the Free University in Berlin. “Mr. Lukashenko cannot afford to quarrel with either country, so he is playing a difficult game, trying to look both ways."
Mr. Lukashenko has spoken out in support of the new Ukraine government, and has tried to build up Belarusian identity independent of Russia. Around 50 percent of the population describe themselves as native Russian speakers.
Mr. Lukashenko had supported this trend, arguing in the past that the Belarusian language was not sophisticated enough to express complex thoughts. But last July, he gave a speech saying “We aim to make the Belarus language cool again.”
Earlier this year, the state media announced a policy of “de-Russification” of schools.
There is a danger Mr. Putin will get fed up with his maneuvering and do something. It is a bad situation for us. Andrei Sannikov, political activist
The country has also reinforced its border with Ukraine, partly to stop Ukrainian fighters moving into Belarus, but also to discourage Russia from considering Belarus as a base from which to attack Ukraine.
A new military doctrine the country adopted on February 1 stated that “the sending of armed groups, irregular forces or mercenary groups who use arms against Belarus will trigger a declaration of war.”
Moscow has so far reacted relatively mildly to these pronouncements, but Mr. Sannikov, who now lives in Warsaw, warns that Belarus, economically weak and politically isolated, will be unable to defend itself against Russia.
“There is a danger Mr. Putin will get fed up with his maneuvering and do something. It is a bad situation for us,” Mr. Sannikov said.
If Belarus implodes, the trains rolling through from China to Germany and the rest of Europe may need to take a detour.
Meera Selva is an editor for Handelsblatt Global Edition and has reported on security and war out of Nairobi, London and Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]