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.