Lukashenko challenged by isolation
Main challenge the authorities face today is how to ensure external financial support for the Belarusian economy and political support for the regime – ideally – without changing the disposition.
The past week demonstrated that the current demands of the EU (release of political prisoners) are more painful to implement in terms of reputation, but less challenging than Moscow’s demands in terms of preservation of the monopoly on power by the ruling group.
Deterioration of the relations with the EU presumed to a certain extent that Kremlin will get involved in the Belarusian-EU conflict on the side of Belarus, thereby increasing the value of Belarus vis-à-vis Moscow as an ally. As a result, Belarus hoped for concessions by Moscow in terms of economic reforms (privatization and unification of the economic rules within the Customs Union) and for additional financial support.
The EurAsEC Summit demonstrated to Lukashenko that if Europe was not interested in him, he would be of no interest to Kremlin either. If there is no threat of the intensification of the relations between Belarus and the EU, while relative stability is preserved in Belarus, the Kremlin sees no point in applying additional efforts in the current circumstances. Stability of the Russian transit is secured and the sale of Belarusian industry and infrastructure assets becomes a matter of time, which is playing on the side of Russian business (state-owned assets in such circumstances become only cheaper over time). Furthermore, the less Belarus is capable of implementing independent policy towards the EU, the sooner Russian business will be able to take over the financial and logistics schemes.
Consistency of the EU’s expansion of sanctions against the ruling elite is most likely to provoke an increase in ad hoc repressions against civil society and tension on the official level. The logic of the regime suggests that the pressure will continue increasing.
Meanwhile, Minsk sent mixed signals last week. In his traditional manner Lukashenko made it clear that he was prepared to discuss a moratorium on the death penalty. A celebration of the 94th anniversary of the Day of Belarusian People’s Republic (a traditional rally organized by the opposition) passed peacefully. These signals suggest the authorities are not yet ready to abandon plans of normalization of the relations with the EU, regardless of the threats voiced by Lukashenko and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry.
We believe, during the next week or two Lukashenko will be choosing between two options and neither of them is good for him.
Yet Minsk has not decided on the "patriots' case" and is attempting to break new grounds in relations with the West. Meanwhile, Brussels is ready to lower cooperation levels with the Belarusian authorities in anticipation of new political prisoners to appear after the trial against former White Legion activists, irrelevant of the charges, either preparation for riots, or creation of illegal armed groups, or any other. Minsk is unlikely to cross the red line in bilateral relations with the West and new political prisoners are unlikely to appear in Belarus.
The harsh clampdown on protests and arrests this spring in Belarus are unlikely to lead to new moves by the European Union, however, the EU would closely monitor ‘some investigations’, including the ‘patriot’s case’ aka the ‘White Legion’ case.
According to human rights defenders, 17 people remain in custody, of which 16 are former members of the White Legion and one supporter of Statkevich-led the Belarusian National Committee, Sergei Kuntsevich. The law enforcement has been releasing former activists of the White Legion and members of the Patriot Club, most likely in order to mitigate criticism from Western capitals. Amid Minsk Dialogue expert conference with the participation of Belarusian and EU officials, the authorities released from custody head of the Bobruisk "Patriot" Club Nikolai Mikhalkov. In addition, the Belarusian leadership expects to ease some tension by demonstrating greater openness to a dialogue with civil society on human rights issues. For instance, for the first time the Belarusian authorities and human rights defenders held consultations on Belarus’ fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee.
The Belarusian leadership has attempted to mitigate the West’s attitude towards the criminal prosecution against former activists of the "White Legion" by adding charges of creating an ‘illegal armed formation’ to ‘preparing for mass riots’ charges.
Apparently, Minsk also gains from speculations about possible disagreements among the executives - supporters of stronger ties with Russia, and "pro-Western" reformists lead by Foreign Minister Makei. That said, the Presidential Administration and President Lukashenka have full control over the foreign policy agenda and the law enforcement.
Overall, Minsk is determined to develop relations with Western capitals. The Belarusian authorities are likely to take controversial actions, i.e. to demonstrate the desire for liberalization in some areas and occasionally tighten repressions against the opponents, however without creating new political prisoners.