Authorities and opposition anticipate freezing or lifting of sanctions against Belarusian officials
The Belarusian authorities have undertaken some symbolic steps to enhance their negotiating position in Brussels over freezing or eventually lifting of the EU sanctions. In the view of the upcoming parliamentary campaign, opposition parties have not requested the EU to resume its tough sanctions policy vis-a-vis Belarus, so as they aspire for some liberalization from the authorities. Nevertheless, the opposition and human rights activists are attempting to preserve their influence on the Belarusian-European agenda.
On February 15th, 2016, the EU Council meeting in Brussels will adopt a decision revising the EU policy towards Belarus and now the draft is in work. In October 2015, after the presidential elections, the EU decided to suspend for four months sanctions against 171 individuals and 10 Belarusian legal entities.
Recently, contacts between Minsk and European capitals have been on the rise. For instance, the OSCE/ODIHR delegation visited Belarus and presented its final report from the 2015 presidential election observation mission. Before the Council meeting over policy revision with regard to Belarus, deputy foreign ministers of Austria, the UK and Germany are planning a visit to Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities are well aware that such high-level visits by EU policy makers are very important for Belarus-EU relations in the coming months. So, the members of the EU delegation will meet not only Deputy Foreign Minister Kupchina, but also Belarusian Foreign Minister Makei.
The Belarusian authorities have shown willingness to make symbolic concessions to Brussels, i.e. to soften pressure against the opposition and the independent media. For instance, courts of Gomel and Svetlogorsk have acquitted a freelance journalist who cooperated with the BelSat TV Channel (Poland). In addition, the authorities have suspended the criminal investigation against independent military analyst Alexander Olesin, issued a soft sentence in the graffiti case, agreed to resume negotiations over foreign political funds’ presence in Belarus (for example, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation), and postponed the decision on the Belarusian Christian Democracy party registration.
Meanwhile, there is no unanimity in the highest echelons of power regarding the future of the Belarusian-European relations. Amid the rapprochement with the EU, some groups within the Belarusian law enforcements are likely to behave erratically. In recent months, law enforcement officials have undertaken controversial actions against independent media journalists. Just before the OSCE/ODIRH delegation visit to Minsk, a reporter from the most popular independent internet portal TUT.BY was beaten in the courtroom. The case has sparked a massive public outcry among civil society representatives, the independent media and the international community.
The actions of the law enforcement have consolidated and tightened the position of Belarusian human rights defenders, who have issued a joint statement on the priorities in determining the strategy towards Belarus. In it, they have voiced criticism of the Belarusian authorities and pointed to the lack of progress with human rights issues. Human rights activists also called on EU leaders to take a harsher stance with regard to the Belarusian authorities.
That said, the opposition is aware that its ability to influence the European policy towards Belarus has diminished. Virtually all opposition parties, including the most radical have supported in one way or another, the possible freezing or lifting of the EU sanctions against the Belarusian authorities (certainly, with some reservations). It is worth noting that amid frozen EU sanctions policy, the Belarusian authorities have softened the pressure against opposition activists. For instance, in recent months the authorities have used fines instead of harsh repressions to curb street activities of opposition activists.
Overall, both, the Belarusian authorities and the opposition are counting on the Belarusian-European settlement to continue, with a gradual or final lifting of sanctions against the Belarusian leadership.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.