Foreign and security policy: Wearing several hats
Throughout the year, relations between Minsk and the Kremlin were tense over energy supplies with periodic exacerbations, albeit without information wars typical for the Belarusian-Russian relations. In H2 2016, Moscow reduced the supply of oil to the Belarusian refineries in retaliation for incomplete payment for gas supplies by Belarus. For the first time, Russia linked oil and gas supplies. The Kremlin ignored all Minsk’s attempts to reach an agreement about resuming the oil supply and reducing the gas price, albeit repeated assurances of the prompt dispute resolution.
The lingering dispute between Minsk and Moscow over oil and gas supplies has put an end to the previous model of the Russo-Belarusian relations.
Throughout the year, the Kremlin remained deaf to the economic, legal, ideological and brotherly appeals by Minsk and did not lower the price of gas; moreover, it reduced the oil supply in H2 2016.
In 2016, Minsk made efforts to create a positive image of the Belarusian NPP construction for the international community and attempted to neutralise criticism from Vilnius by engaging in a dialogue with the Lithuanian authorities. Inside the country, the authorities managed to reverse the people’s attitude towards the nuclear energy, which, however, was undermined by an attempt to becloud an incident at the construction site. Incidents at the NPP construction site mobilised Belarusian society to put pressure on the government to enforce safety rules, but not to abandon the project.
In 2016, Belarus' relations with Ukraine somewhat cooled. Kyiv was displeased with Minsk’s stance (pro-Kremlin) on some sensitive issues for Ukraine. The lack of political trust between the two states affected their cooperation in the security field. Ukraine failed to transfer some important technologies to Belarus.
Appealing to geopolitical arguments, Minsk managed to prompt Poland to pragmatic cooperation,
relaxed pressure on representatives of the Polish minority organisations and promised to facilitate the access of Polish business (including products from the sanctions list) to the Eurasian market. Many representatives of the Belarusian civil society regard this as the main reason why the Polish authorities reduced support for the Belarusian independent media.
After a long break (since November 2014) and after Western capitals lifted sanctions against the Belarusian authorities, the latter resumed executions. Meanwhile, the Belarusian authorities demonstrated readiness to engage in a dialogue on the abolition or a moratorium on the death penalty with the European institutions, albeit, apparently, without the intent to change the practice. Simultaneously, Minsk attempted to put human rights issues at the bottom of the Belarusian-European agenda by prioritising regional security and geopolitical confrontation issues.
Minsk aimed to improve communication with the White House and right the ship of Belarusian-US relations with full diplomatic missions in both capitals. Simultaneously, Belarus sought to maintain a visible distance from the Kremlin's military preparations in a confrontation with NATO, while retaining close defence cooperation with Russia within the Union State. This precluded any positive achievements in Belarus’ relations with the US and NATO.
Washington continued monitoring the situation in Belarus and the United States’ stand on the Belarusian authorities remained tough.
Meanwhile, the role of China as Belarus’ military and political partner, increased. China is becoming a source of technology and finance in implementing programmes having strategic importance for national security.
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.