Berlin - For 15 years, German foreign ministers have steered clear of Belarus, the only major entity left on the European continent with a thoroughly authoritarian system of government.
This week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will make a stopover in Minsk to urge President Alexander Lukashenko to play by the democratic rules in the former Soviet republic's upcoming presidential election.
The stop will be part of a tour that contains another first for Westerwelle: a visit to Lithuania. The Baltic nation will be the last of Germany's 27 European Union partners to host an introductory visit by Westerwelle, who took over the foreign portfolio one year ago.
The diplomats of Europe have several constant headaches and Belarus is one of them. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994 and critics - he has plenty - say he is a dictator who holds office by sham elections.
At the last presidential election, he allegedly swept 83 per cent of the vote. In protest, the European Union slapped a ban on visits to the west by Lukashenko, though that has since been relaxed.
Lukashenko is one of those rulers whom western politicians are unenthusiastic about being seen with.
Westerwelle's decision to make the trip is connected to the polls set for December 19 in Belarus, population 10 million.
Observers are concerned that there will be electoral fraud, and that Lukashenko, 56, will again be declared the winner by an incredible margin.
Westerwelle and Poland's foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who will accompany him, will press Lukashenko to conduct 'free and fair elections' and democratize Belarus.
In remarks to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday, Westerwelle said, 'If Belarus turns onto that course, a greater opening towards the European Union would be possible, but only if it does so.'
Sikorski and Westerwelle will also meet with figures from the Belarus opposition.
The fact that Westerwelle will spend the previous day, Monday, in Moscow, is timely. The Russians pay close attention to Belarus and mutual relations appear to be at their worst for years.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently accused Lukashenko of provoking enmity and the term 'psychopath' has been heard on Russian state-controlled television when talking about Lukashenko.
The Belarus president, in turn, has accused the Kremlin of trying to oust him.
Moscow's influence in Belarus is considerable. Were the Kremlin to refuse to recognize the declared outcome of the December 19 polls, some experts think Lukashenko would ultimately be doomed.
Medvedev recently said he expected 'nothing good' to come from the election, though aides said he was just being ironic. Medvedev's blog has accused Lukashenko of ensuring that Belarus dissidents get killed or just disappear.
A German human-rights activist has appealed to Westerwelle to speak bluntly to Lukashenko.
Monika Lueke, secretary of the German section of Amnesty International, said Sunday a good start would be for Belarus to abolish the death penalty.
She told the German Press Agency dpa that Belarus was the sole European nation that still executes people. Two criminals were executed in March. Lueke said Westerwelle should raise this 'at the top and very directly.'
'He should demand an immediate moratorium on executions, followed by abolition of the death penalty,' she said. Westerwelle should also ask why Belarus arrested peaceful demonstrators and kept its media under state censorship, she added.