Belarusian authorities hope to engage new pontiff in settling Belarus-EU relations

April 22, 2016 18:38

During a brief conversation with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Metropolitan of Minsk and Mogilev, Father Francis asked him about the ‘case’ of priest Vladislav Lazar, who was detained on spying suspicions.

Belarus is attempting to involve the Catholic Church as an intermediary between the EU and Belarus. Since the election of new Pope and changes in the Vatican leadership, Belarus has made concerted efforts to renew the interest of the Holy See in Belarus. It appears that these efforts are paying off.

Since the mid-2000s, the Catholic Church has played a special role in relations between Belarus and the European Union. Belarus has repeatedly asked the Vatican for help in solving problems in relations with the EU. After the European Union lifted sanctions in 2009, Belarus’ president made his first official European visit to the Vatican. Then, the Metropolitan Kondrusiewicz said, ‘I am very pleased that this visit took place. I think it will be very useful for Belarus, for the Catholic Church, as well as the relations between Belarus and the European Union’.

In 2012, Lukashenko attempted to restore EU-Belarus relations by seeking the help of the Catholic Church. During a meeting with the Holy See Ambassador in Belarus, Paul Friedrich von Furherr, the president emphasized that the Catholic Church ‘can do more to improve relations between Belarus and Western Europe, I’m not even talking about the European Union in general, because it is well-known who plays first fiddle there. Therefore, we would like to send this signal through you.’

He referred to arrangements between him and Benedict XVI in 2009, reiterating ‘I must tell you that we have done everything I have promised back then’. However, back then the signal was not received by the Holy See.

It required additional effort from Belarus to draw the attention of the new Pope, who is quite far from European realities, to Belarusian issues.

In summer 2013, the police launched two criminal cases which somehow affect Catholic Church interests in Belarus. In June, a criminal investigation was launched against a Shchuchin parishioner, Alexei Shchedrova, for organizing a shelter for the homeless. There was no official reaction from the Catholic Church in Belarus, but Catholic bishops had expressed confusion about the situation. Vice-Chancellor of the Hrodna Roman Catholic Curia, Antonii Gremza, (Shchedrov was a parishioner there), called his actions a private initiative.

A month after the investigation against Shchedrov was launched, Belarusian special services detained a Catholic priest, Vladislav Lazar. He was arrested in June 2013 and charged with sending money and valuables to a person accused of espionage.

The criminal prosecution of a Catholic priest and a parishioner has resonated widely not only throughout Belarus, but has also reached the Vatican. On behalf of the Vatican, negotiations with the Belarusian authorities over the Lazar case were held by Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop in Belarus, Claudio Gugerotti. The criminal investigation against Alexei Shchedrov has now been dropped, in a gesture of ‘good will’ from the Belarusian authorities.

In this way, the Belarusian authorities are attempting to involve the Vatican as a mediator to resolve Belarusian-European relations. In the near future, diplomatic relations between Belarus and the Vatican might intensify. If the Lazar case is closed, it should be regarded that an agreement has been reached between the Vatican and Minsk.

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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.