Belarus counts on deeper political dialogue with EU

April 22, 2016 19:36

Minsk is demonstrating cautious yet persistent intentions to continue the process of normalising relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities hope the EU will revise its approach to fulfilling basic ‘value-based’ conditions for Belarusian-European relations, meanwhile they will ease repression against the opposition during the suspension of the EU sanctions. That said, the authorities are not serious about allowing the opposition to win seats in the representative bodies under pressure from the EU and the United States.

Last week, Foreign Ministers of Belarus and Lithuania discussed the suspension of EU sanctions and visa facilitation.

After the presidential campaign and the inauguration, the Belarusian authorities have increased contacts with Western capitals. Over the past two weeks, Foreign Ministry officials met with several officials from the EU countries, both in Belarus and abroad. In most cases, in addition to bilateral cooperation issues, the parties have discussed the normalization of Belarusian-European relations.

The Belarusian government is attempting to take advantage of the opened door of opportunity in order to take Belarus-EU relations to a new level during the four-month period of suspended sanctions. Belarusian officials are emphasising the importance of developing pragmatic relations with the EU, especially trade and economic relations, and hope to expand political dialogue with Western capitals.

In addition, the Belarusian authorities are trying to use all available platforms and contacts in order to form a positive attitude towards the Belarusian leadership in Western capitals. For instance, Foreign Minister Makey met with President of the Jamestown Foundation (USA), Glen Howard, who noted the special role of the Belarusian authorities in the region amid growing geopolitical confrontation between the Kremlin and Western capitals.

Meanwhile, the president has stepped away from forming the foreign policy agenda with Western capitals, which is likely in order not to irritate the Kremlin with more frequent contacts with the West. Despite traditional statements about the importance of developing relations with Russia, the Eurasian integration’s value has noticeably decreased in Belarus’ eyes due to reduced financial capacity of the Kremlin to support the Belarusian economy and decreased attractiveness of the Russian market for Belarusian enterprises.

That said, the Belarusian authorities regard EU statements about democratization of domestic policies merely as a necessary background for a political dialogue. And, they believe they have removed political requirements in relations with the European Union.

The Belarusian authorities are attempting to sell to Western capitals that there is neither serious demand for democratic reforms from Belarusian society, nor a clear request for economic liberalisation. Indeed, amid the protracted conflict in Ukraine, protest potential of the Belarusian population has decreased significantly – actions of the opposition during and after the presidential campaign have not attracted many participants.

Nevertheless, the opposition is also seeking to take advantage of yet another ‘thaw’ in the Belarusian-European relations and more open government: several oppositional initiatives have submitted or plan to submit an application for official registration.

Quite possible, the Belarusian authorities may somewhat soften their repressions against the opposition and amend the electoral legislation, however, none of that would affect the the practice of holding parliamentary elections.

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The Belarusian authorities have launched a discussion on the moratorium or abolition of the death penalty under the pressure of Belarusian human rights activists and international community. Apparently, the authorities are interested in monitoring public sentiments and response to the possible abolition of the capital punishment. The introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty would depend on the dynamics in Belarusian-European relations, efforts of the civil society organisations and Western capitals.

In Grodno last week, the possibility of abolishing the death penalty in Belarus or introducing a moratorium was discussed.

The Belarusian authorities are likely to continue to support the death penalty in Belarus. During his rule, President Lukashenka pardoned only one person, and courts sentenced to death more than 400 people since the early 1990s. Over the past year, Belarusian courts sentenced to death several persons and one person was executed.

There are no recent independent polls about people’s attitude about the death penalty in Belarus. Apparently, this issue is not a priority for the population. In many ways, public opinion about the abolition of the death penalty would depend on the tone of the state-owned media reports.

That said, the Belarusian Orthodox Church and the Roman-Catholic Church stand for the abolition of the capital punishment, however their efforts in this regard only limit to public statements about their stance. Simultaneously, the authorities could have influenced public opinion about the death penalty through a focused media campaign in the state media. As they did, for example, with the nuclear power plant construction in Astravets. Initially unpopular project of the NPP construction was broadly promoted in the state media, and eventually, according to independent pollsters, was accepted by most population.