Lukashenko enlisted Medvedev’s support
On 24 February Presidents of Belarus and Russia, Lukashenka and Medvedev issued a joint statement condemning the economic sanctions implemented by the U.S. and the EU against Belarus.
First of all, this statement should be regarded as Lukashenko’s personal statement. Thereby the President, who is perceived by the Belarusian business environment as the one to be blamed for the sanctions, demonstrates his indispensability in relations with the Kremlin. At the same time, the CES’ promise of support with Lukashenko’s mediation becomes an insurance policy for those businesses and oligarchs, who could be affected by the new economic sanctions.
It is worth to mention that the statement came out not as a result of the efforts undertaken by Lukashenko and his Administration, but rather of lobby by the First Vice-Prime Minister of Belarus Mr. Rumas, who addressed a letter to the leadership of the Eurasian Economic Commission on 15 February requesting for such support. Therefore the reciprocal gesture of the Administration of the Russian President should be considered as a support to the team of the Prime Minister Myasnikovich. Predictably the government’s role in the joint statement has not been mentioned so far.
If Presidential candidate Vladimir Putin signed the statement, it would have been more impressive. However in that case on behalf of Belarus it should have been signed by the Prime Minister Myasnikovich, becoming a dangerous challenge to the domestic influence of President Lukashenko.
Nevertheless, with the efforts of government officials, journalists and experts, the joint statement of Lukashenko and Medvedev was communicated to the Belarusian population as a sign of close friendship between the two presidents and as an evidence of support of President Lukashenko by a strong political and economic partner.
However, the mere appearance of the joint statement at the last moment, at 16:00 on Friday, 24 February, i.e. at the end of the last working day before Monday, 27 February, when a meeting of the Council of the EU is to take place, implies that Belarus assesses the probability of new sanctions as high and is afraid of such outcome.
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.