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.
President Lukashenka continues to rotate staff and rejuvenate heads of departments and universities following new appointments in regional administrations. Apparently, new Information Minister Karliukevich could somewhat relax the state policy towards the independent media and introduce technological solutions for retaining control over Belarus’ information space. New rectors could strengthen the trend for soft Belarusization in the regions and tighten the disciplinary and ideological control over the student movement in the capital.
President Lukashenka has appointed new ministers of culture and information, the new rector of the Belarusian State University and heads of three universities, assistants in the Minsk and Vitebsk regions.
The new Information Minister Karliukevich is likely to avoid controversial initiatives similar to those former Minister Ananich was famous for, however, certainly within his capacities. Nevertheless, the appointment of Belarusian-speaking writer Karliukevich could be regarded as the state’s cautious attempt to relax environment in the media field and ensure the sovereignty of national media.
The Belarusian leadership has consolidated the trend for mild Belarusization by appointing a young historian and a ‘reasonable nationalist’, Duk as the rector at the Kuleshov State University in Mogilev. Meanwhile, while choosing the head of the Belarusian State University, the president apparently had in mind the strengthening of the ideological loyalty among the teaching staff and students at the main university in order to keep the youth movement at bay. Previously, Korol was the rector of the Kupala State University in Grodno, where he held purges among the disloyal teaching staff.
The trend for the renewal of mid-ranking executives and their rejuvenation has confirmed. The age of the Culture Minister and three new rectors varies from 39 to 44 years old.