Lukashenko sets framework for Makey’s negotiations in Brussels

April 22, 2016 18:34

On July 19th, Irina Khalip, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, has been released from punishment by a court decision. On July 25th, former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu’s trial will take place.

Emigration from Belarus of most activists from Sannikov’s team pre-determined the court’s soft decision in Khalip case. If Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu is also released from punishment, it will imply that the ruling group is ready to bridge positions with the West in preparation for the next round of the dialogue.

The ruling group does not consider former candidate Sannikov’s team as serious opponents in Belarus’ political arena. Forced emigration of the team leaders and majority ‘European Belarus’ campaign activists is assessed by the authorities as weakening of Sannikov’s positions. Therefore the government had no reasons to extend Irina Khalip’s punishment (house arrest and supervisory regime), or the more so, to sentence her to a prison term.

In addition, if Khalip was locked up that would unavoidably create a new wave of international criticism against the authorities, since she would be recognized as yet another political prisoner in Belarus. Conversely, Khalip’s release creates a favorable background for Foreign Minister Makey’s visit to Brussels on July 22nd.

It is noteworthy, that Khalip (on July 19th) and Nyaklyaeu’s (on July 25th) trials were synchronized with Makey’s visit to Brussels (on July 22nd). Presumably, such synchronization was used by the authorities to ensure situational decision-making - depending on the outcome of Makey’s negotiations in Brussels. It also implies that the principled decision on the resumption of the dialogue with the West and the corresponding release of political prisoners in Belarus is still pending. The ruling group is treating the upcoming negotiations as a bargain and demonstrates its reluctance to comply with the requirement to rehabilitate political prisoners (Khalip’s conviction has not been expunged).

In turn, the decision in the Nyaklyaeu case on July 25th will indicate how much influence Minister Makey has inside the country, since he apparently was making lots of efforts to resume dialogue with the EU and the U.S.. If Nyaklyaeu is released from punishment, it might be a sign of Lukashenko’s confidence in Makey and a positive assessment of Foreign Ministry’s achievements under his leadership.

Alternatively, any sentence against Nyaklyaeu will result in further deterioration of the relations with the West, and will diminish the Foreign Ministry’s achievements in the western policy made over 2012, as well, will be a sign of President’s retentive mistrust to the Foreign Minister.

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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.