Authorities continue showing “guts” to the West
Last week, the number of Belarusian citizens, who have been denied permission to travel abroad increased. On March 17 Mr. Kovalev, one of the convicts in the case of the terrorist attack in the Minsk metro was executed.
The increased number of individuals, who are banned from leaving Belarus, is a continuation of the Belarusian authorities’ response to the EU visa “black list” and a confirmation of their unwillingness to make concessions. The Belarusian “ban” list has not yet been disclosed and no governmental agency has yet assumed responsibility for it, on the contrary, officials deny its existence.
To date, empirically collected data suggests that this list includes leaders of opposition parties (United Civic Party, “Fair World” party) and non-governmental organizations and campaigns (Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, “For Fair Elections” campaign), as well as journalists of the independent media.
It is likely that president Lukashenko and his surrounding circles thereby challenge the EU and simultaneously take a preemptive measure against potential extension of visa ban list or introduction of economic sanctions on the eve of a meeting of EU Council on 22-23 March. Such a response is quite traditional of the Belarusian authorities, who perceive foreign policy through a narrow agonal optics of “attack – counter-attack”.
At the same time the authorities broadcast signals of their readiness to release political prisoners. In particular, Mr. Statkevich for the first time in the past seven months of imprisonment was allowed to phone home. There are reports the consideration of Mr. Sannikov’s appeal is delayed.
The death sentence could not be unambiguously interpreted as a proof that Minsk is not interested in a dialogue with the Council of Europe on the issue of a moratorium on the death penalty. On the contrary, after rejecting a pardon within a fundamentally important for the authorities case and the execution that followed, Minsk could get back to a discussion of a moratorium on the death penalty. The paradoxical logic of the regime suggests, after drawing a line under the terrorist attack case it has been “liberated” to continue a dialogue on the issue of the death penalty.
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.