GYMNICH: EU foreign ministers pose for the traditional family photo at the Gymnich meeting in Sopot, Poland, at the beginning of September.
The meeting in Minsk was a discreet one, between a foreign minister from a European Union country and the dictator who is a bête noire to the EU.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov, in the capital city of Belarus in a move discussed with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, was seeking to persuade president Alexander Lukashenko to take a number of steps to make it possible to move Belarus from its current deep political and economic crisis towards a new future for the country.
The Mladenov-Lukashenko talks, lasting about two and a half hours, took place on August 26, about a week ahead of the regular informal Gymnich meeting of EU foreign ministers.
The EU, like the US, has come down hard on Belarus after the debacle of the elections that produced another term in office for Lukashenko, in a process widely regarded as lacking credibility and that was followed by iron-fisted action by the Lukashenko regime against pro-democracy activists and his presidential rivals, some of whom were jailed along with other activists and journalists.
Soon after the meeting in Minsk, Lukashenko announced that four people had been pardoned on September 1, that he intended freeing all political prisoners by mid-October and that he would hold a "round table" with the political opposition.
Reaction was mixed, with many viewing with caution the behaviour of the head of a state that still has a KGB – by that name.
Speaking on September 2, after his involvement in the initiative emerged, Mladenov said, as quoted by Radio Free Europe: "I'm really glad that at this stage, this Bulgarian initiative is bearing fruit. I hope it will continue, and that all [the political prisoners] will leave prison and will live freely in a country where all parties are involved in a civilised and modern dialogue about the future".
A letter from Mladenov to Ashton and other EU foreign ministers became public after news agency Reuters obtained a copy ahead of the Gymnich meeting.
Reaction from EU foreign ministers opposed to such an initiative was stern.
"There will be no rapprochement with the EU until he (Lukashenko) frees political prisoners," Austria's foreign minister Michael Spindelegger said while attending the Gymnich meeting, news agency AFP said.
"It's a clear signal (...) because it's unacceptable there are political prisoners in Belarus, that they haven't been set free and that the political opposition is being prevented from organising," Spindelegger said.
Poland's foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski said that the liberation and participation in politics of all political prisoners in Belarus was a prerequisite for EU resumption of dialogue with authorities in Belarus.
"Of course we will urge the Belarus authorities to go in this direction, but what is clear is that we will not engage in horse-trading for prisoners," Sikorski said.
At the Gymnich meeting in Sopot, Poland, Ashton said of Belarus: "We've taken a very strong position on the need to make sure that political prisoners are restored to freedom and rehabilitated properly and that that country considers its relationship with the European Union.
"I reiterate that we believe all political prisoners should be released and rehabilitated. That was our position, is our position, and the position that we continue to make very clear," Ashton said.
Lukashenko, meanwhile, facing dire economic woes including a huge trade deficit and having had scant hope of help either from the International Monetary Fund or from Russia, has been attempting to come up with some reforms that could increase the prospect of a bailout. Financial crisis in Belarus followed a spending spree by Lukashenko at the end of 2010 as the presidential election came closer.
Later in September, the local rouble will no longer be backed up by the government. Opinions vary about how far the currency will plummet at the moment it floats free, but some analysts said that the liberalisation move could help Belarus as it sought IMF help.