Belarus officials say restoring relations with EU is important, but not pressing

April 22, 2016 18:39

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius is scheduled to meet with Belarusian President Lukashenko in late October to hand him an invitation to the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius.

Belarus is interested in restoring Belarus-EU relations to compensate for growing pressure from the Kremlin. Nevertheless, deeper integration with the EU within the Eastern Partnership Programme is not Belarus’ foreign policy priority. In the short and mid-term, Belarus’ actions will be governed by Eurasian Integration agreements with Russia and Kazakhstan.

It was once a rule of thumb that as Russia increased its pressure on Belarus, the latter would increase its diplomatic efforts in Western policy. And by doing so, Belarusian leadership would mitigate claims from Russia or maintain the level of Russian subsidies.

However, recently Belarus has been unable to use the ‘European integration’ factor in order to blackmail Russia. Back in 2010 Belarus made its choice in favour of Eurasian Integration by signing official documents to establish the Eurasian Union.

Since 2011, several attempts have been made by the E.U. to normalize Belarus-EU relations. In H2 2011, the Polish EU Presidency advocated the renewal of a dialogue between Minsk and Brussels. However, Belarus did not yield to pressure and refused to fulfill the basic EU requirement, i.e. the release of political prisoners. Yet in 2008 Belarus had met this requirement, which was enough to resume Belarus-EU relations. In addition, back in September 2011, Belarusian diplomats made a demarche by refusing to participate in the Warsaw Eastern Partnership Summit, deliberately straining Polish-Belarusian relations.

The Lithuanian EU Presidency has also not seen significant changes in Belarusian-European relations, although Lithuanian leaders’ policy vis-à-vis Belarus has been more cautious.  In general, E.U. efforts have left room for manoeuvre and for Lukashenko to save face.

However, at a press conference last week with Russian journalists, Lukashenko said that Belarus was not negotiating with the European Union ‘because no one wants to talk to us anyway’.

The Belarusian president is unable to resume his ‘pendulum’ policy between the East and the West, which he successfully implemented throughout 2008-2010. Strengthening economic and political ties with Russia have limited Belarus’ opportunities to play on Russo-European contradictions.

Belarus’ interest in the Eastern Partnership Programme has weakened while integration within the Eurasian Union has strengthened. Belarus will continue to ignore the basic EU requirements for the normalization of relations. Even if the Belarusian delegation takes part in the Vilnius Summit, there will be no significant breakthroughs in Belarus-EU relations.

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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.