Belarusian authorities hope to engage new pontiff in settling Belarus-EU relations
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.
The Belarusian authorities regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.