Belarusian Parliament strengthens its position in dialogue with Western capitals

January 30, 2017 11:46

Minsk is not after full membership in the Council of Europe, but would like to restore the special guest status in the PACE to have an additional communication channel with Western capitals without committing to democracy and human rights. Amid limited contacts with European capitals, the Belarusian authorities fear the strengthening of the Parliament’s influence as an institution. Apparently, the authorities may agree to minor concessions on the death penalty and amendments to the electoral law, which could be tested during the local elections.

At a meeting of the Political Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last week, Belarus was represented by MPs from the government and from the opposition.

Minsk appears to be ready to resume normalisation talks with European capitals against the background of the lingering tension in relations with the Kremlin. In contacts with PACE parliamentarians, the Belarusian authorities are likely to focus on the death penalty and allow some limited criticism of the electoral law.

That said, according to independent pollsters, the death penalty in Belarus enjoys strong support in the highest echelons of power and in the Belarusian society alike, which is why the authorities are likely to appeal to preserve it. Meanwhile, the authorities could agree to an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in order to give a new impetus to the Belarusian-European dialogue, especially given the reduced dividends from the peace-building initiatives in relation to Ukraine. In addition, the Belarusian leadership has shown readiness to introduce some noncritical amendments to the electoral law, some of which had been tested as the CEC recommendations during the 2016 parliamentary election campaign. Tests are likely to continue in the local elections in 2017/2018.

Growing contacts between the Belarusian and European MPs are strengthening the role of the Belarusian Parliament, and could reduce the influence of the Presidential Administration in the Belarusian-European dialogue. Belarusian MPs not only have restored official contacts within the PACE, but also have planned a bilateral visit to the Polish parliament later this year. That said, President Lukashenka since 2011 met with EU leaders in the EU only once in May 2016, namely, he paid an official visit to Italy and the Vatican.

The Belarusian authorities are only partially interested in increasing the influence of Belarusian MPs in Belarusian-European relations, and they are likely to limit the growth of the Parliament’s institutional importance.

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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.