By Ahto Lobjakas
HLUBOKA NAD VLTAVOU -- A tentative consensus appeared to be emerging at a meeting in the Czech Republic of EU foreign ministers to invite Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to an upcoming launch summit of the Eastern Partnership, although officials were seemingly hopeful that the authoritarian leader would not show up personally at the event.
The ministers are in the Czech Republic for two days of informal talks at a scenic southern Bohemian castle that once belonged to the family of their host, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
After a debate on Belarus that Scwarzenberg described as "very open" -- diplomatic code for contentious -- the EU appears convinced that it can afford the gamble.
Officially, however, no decision has been taken.
But after the talks on March 27, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana indicated that the majority of the bloc's member states would like everyone to be present at the May 7 summit in Prague.
"As you know, an important summit has been convened by the Czech [EU] presidency, a very important summit, and we would like everybody to be present at that summit," Solana said. "We have discussed what could be the best manner to have everybody around [the table] at that summit in a constructive attitude. I don't think we can go beyond that now."
But "everyone" might well be interpreted to mean "every country," not necessarily "every leader."
According to diplomatic sources present at the meeting, the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, which has an office in Minsk, appears to believe that if invited, Lukashenka would send his foreign minister, Siarhey Martynau, or some other senior official in his stead.
If it works, the stratagem could eliminate the risk of an offended Belarus boycotting the summit altogether if Lukashenka is not invited. On the other hand, Lukashenka's absence could reduce the danger of inevitably awkward scenes.
The Netherlands, in particular, has threatened to publicly upbraid Lukashenka if he shows up in the manner of the treatment meted out to the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe at an Eu-Africa summit a few years ago.
Critics fear Lukashenka would exploit the summit limelight to air his own, in all probability largely unreconstructed, views.
Another option on the table at Hluboka was to reconfigure the format and invite prime ministers or foreign ministers instead of presidents. But that option has little support, as it would likely provoke resentment from the other potential invitees -- the heads of state of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
Many EU officials argue that Belarus's presence at the summit -- and in the Eastern Partnership -- is of vital importance to lend the project credibility. Backers have long played up the project as an alternative to Russia's assertive quest for dominance outside its borders. Russia itself has attacked the EU vehemently in recent weeks for purportedly seeking to establish its own "sphere of influence."
Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the future of the Western Balkans are also on the ministers' agenda.
Schwarzenberg said the first day of discussion paved the way for a trans-Atlantic exchange of views that is expected to take place in Prague on April 5, when the 27 EU leaders meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.
"There will be a discussion with the United States at the summit in Prague exactly about this," Schwarzenberg said. "There the heads of state of the EU will discuss with President Obama whatever we can deliver."
Schwarzenberg did not directly respond to Obama's recent calls for greater EU involvement in Afghanistan, but said he "understands" the United States expects the bloc to contribute "civilian" assistance in the form of an enhanced "gendarmerie-style" police-training mission.
The EU foreign ministers also reaffirmed their commitment to a "two-state" solution in Israel and the Palestinian territory, without which Solana said there would be "no peace process, no solution."
The ministers are expected to meet their counterparts from the Western Balkans for talks on the future of the region on the second day of the gathering in Hluboka.