Makey has very little room for maneuver
On July 22nd, in Brussels, Belarus’ Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey took part in the Eastern Partnership Foreign Minister’s meeting.
The authorities are cautious about resuming the dialogue with the West: media coverage of the Belarusian delegation participation in the Brussels Summit was explicitly moderate and simultaneously President Lukashenko made a harsh statement about the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, the news about the new EU technical assistance programme was perceived positively.
Currently the ruling group perceives the possible resumption of political relations with the EU very cautiously. For example, Belarusian Foreign Ministry Press Service was the main ‘reporter’ about the outcomes of Makey’s visit to Brussels. State media coverage of the visit was extremely scant.
In addition, on July 26th, President Lukashenko spoke about the detention of a former Belarusian secret services employee, who was passing on information to the West via the Roman Catholic Church. The statement was damaging to the efforts undertaken by the Foreign Ministry and Belarusian Ambassador to the Holy See Sergey Aleynik, in particular. For a good reason, this channel was regarded as a likely mediator in restoring the dialogue with the EU.
However, the release of former presidential candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu (in 2010 the politician was sentenced to suspended 2-year prison term) on July 25th implies that Belarusian authorities are not interested in aggravating the relations with the EU, at least on human rights issues. Nevertheless, the government is still not ready to fulfill the requirements to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners.
Finally, the authorities demonstrate predictably positive attitude to the technical assistance from the EU. On July 25th, the National Radio Channel broadcasted the news about two grants allocated for Belarus within the Eastern Partnership Programme: support for the national health system (EUR 8 million) and regional development (EUR 3.5 million).
The ruling group has once again demonstrated its uncompromising position to the EU and the intention to continue bargaining – that is why they have not fulfilled the requirement to release political prisoners. The authorities want the West to lift visa sanctions first, Minister Makey said in Brussels.
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.