Amid thaw with West, Belarus will not change repressive domestic policies
The political opposition and civil society in Belarus view the increased contacts between the Belarusian authorities and the West as a repetition of the 2008-2010 “thaw” in Belarusian-European relations. Even though the Belarusian authorities are expected to somewhat decrease the repressive crackdown on the opposition ahead of the elections, they are unlikely to give them as much freedom as in 2008-2010. In addition, amid rising threats to Belarus’ independence from the Kremlin, the opposition and civil society fear that the authorities might limit their influence on the Belarusian-European relations’ agenda.
At an OSCE workshop, Belarus’ Deputy Foreign Minister Kupchina said that the Belarusian authorities were ready for a dialogue on media freedom.
The bulk of the opposition welcomed the revival between official Minsk and Western capitals. Amid the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, the opposition and civil society hope that a settlement in Belarusian-European relations might reduce threats to Belarus’ independence from the Kremlin.
The so-called “radical” opposition, which stands for full isolation of the Belarusian authorities until they fulfil all requirements put forward by Western capitals, has lost ground considerably – due to domestic repressions and forced emigration of its main leaders. Moreover, many opposition-minded people inside Belarus no longer support such an approach due to fears that the Russo-Ukrainian scenario might repeat in Belarus if the Belarusian state weakens because of the protests.
Amid the crisis in Ukraine, the vast majority of the opposition lean towards the idea of building a triangle: the EU, official Minsk and Belarus’ civil society. Meanwhile, in 2014 the Belarusian authorities were able to reduce the impact of civil society on the Belarusian-European relations’ agenda, including bypassing the political requirements for resuming the dialogue between Minsk and Brussels. Moreover, with growing geopolitical threats in the region, part of the opposition is ready to agree to de-politicising Belarusian-European relations and to bilateral cooperation between Minsk and Brussels.
Belarusian experts believe that there are two potential scenarios for Belarusian-European relations in the coming years. The first and most likely one is that the 2008-2010 “thaw” in Minsk and Brussels relations might see a repetition. This means that the Belarus-EU upbeat cooperation might last until the presidential elections in 2015, which would traditionally result in the crackdown on the opposition and renewed isolation of the Belarusian authorities. Neither the Belarusian authorities nor the bulk of the opposition wants this scenario. The second scenario is that Belarus-EU relations might develop much like EU-Azerbaijan relations, i.e. that civil society’s role would be minimised. Either way, the Belarusian authorities would not allow any systemic or even symbolic changes in the domestic policy and would not soften traditionally repressive approach to the opposition.
In proof of the above, immediately after the visit of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatovic, three independent journalists were detained in Minsk. In addition, a Mogilev-based journalist was accused of collaborating with foreign media (Deutsche Welle) without due accreditation and his apartment was searched. Moreover, human rights activists reported that in H2 2014 political arrests peaked since the “social networks revolution” protests in mid-2011.
Regardless of how Belarus-EU relations develop in the future, the Belarusian authorities will continue to purge the opposition and independent media ahead of the presidential campaign in 2015. If the “thaw” in Belarus-EU relations persists, the authorities will have to demonstrate their desire to promote dialogue with civil society within the country.
President Lukashenka has met with the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who visited Minsk and the Minsk Automobile Plant. Minsk has always sought to have independent links with Russian regional elites, partially, to compensate for the Kremlin's diminishing interest in Belarus. In recent years, Belarus’ contacts with the Russian regions have been extremely intense. However, with some leaders of Russian regions, primarily heads of large republics, communication was more difficult to build. As many analysts in Minsk suggested, Minsk could regard contacts between President Lukashenka and the head of Chechnya as an additional communication channel for relieving tension in relations with the Kremlin. However, most likely, a trusting relationship with Kadyrov is a value for Minsk as such, provided Kadyrov’s broad business and political interests, and a high degree of autonomy for the Chechen leader from the Kremlin.