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 regard the Catholic conference as yet another international event to promote Minsk as a global negotiating platform. Minsk’s proposal to organise a meeting between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church is rather an image-making undertaking than a serious intention. However, the authorities could somewhat extend the opportunities for the Roman-Catholic Church in Belarus due to developing contacts with the Catholic world.
Minsk is attempting to lay out a mosaic from various international religious, political and sportive events to shape a positive image of Belarus for promoting the Helsinki 2.0 idea.
Belarus’ invitation to the head of the Holy See for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church should be regarded as a continuation of her foreign policy efforts in shaping Minsk’s peacekeeping image and enhancing Belarus’ international weight. The Belarusian authorities are aware that their initiative is unlikely to find supporters among the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. In Russia, isolationist sentiments prevail.
In addition, for domestic audiences, the authorities make up for the lack of tangible economic growth with demonstrations of growth in Minsk’s authority at international level through providing a platform for religious, sportive and other dialogues.