Minsk is attempting to play down human rights issues in relations with EU
The Belarusian authorities aim to raise the profile of the geopolitical aspect in the Belarusian-European relations to enhance economic cooperation. That said, Minsk shows discontent with Europe’s persistence regarding Belarus’ compliance with her human rights commitments and attempts to slow down the dialogue on human rights and democratisation. The Belarusian authorities aspire to preserve the current political liberalisation without harsh persecution of the opposition, but with the use of financial mechanisms to curb protest activity.
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry has sharply reacted to the critical resolution of the European Parliament, which, however, is unlikely to affect Minsk’s commitment to the Belarusian-European normalisation. The Belarusian authorities hope that the document adopted by European MPs will not slow down the steady positive cooperation between Minsk and European capitals. According to the Belarusian authorities, geopolitical conflict with Russia is a crucial factor for developing Belarusian-European relations, and Minsk’s attempts to become the "regional stability donor" compensate for the lack of democracy and violations of human rights in the country.
The Belarusian authorities seek to give an additional impetus to relations with the European capitals, to update Minsk image as a stability donor in the region and put forward additional peace initiatives. For instance, the president suggested that Belarus could participate in the peacekeeping mission in Donbass, and Minsk could host the settlement process for Western capitals and the Kremlin. The Belarusian leadership hopes that such initiatives would drive away the West’s attention from the critical assessments of the human rights situation in the country.
Minsk is attempting to link financial assistance with strengthening of the Belarusian independence in order to pay down the value aspect in the dialogue with European capitals. From pragmatic cooperation with the EU, Belarus expects assistance in obtaining credit support from international institutions, assistance in joining the WTO, restoring trade preferences for Belarusian goods on the EU market, and signing a basic agreement between Belarus and the EU. Visa liberalisation issue seems to be less important for the officials in Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities do not see the need to continue political liberalisation with regard to political opposition and human rights in the country in the near future.
The Belarusian authorities have revived the cyclical political agenda, including preventive crackdown with the use of force during the Freedom Day rally in Minsk and a loyal attitude to the participants in the opposition events in the regions. The protest rally in Minsk has evidenced that the Belarusian society has freed from the post-Maidan syndrome and showed high self-organisation capacity during the event in the absence of opposition leaders. In the future, the authorities are likely to expand the framework for sanctioned and legal activity for the moderate opposition in order to reduce the potential for street protests.
The Freedom Day march in Minsk on March 25th, 2017 was marked by unprecedented and brutal detentions before and during the event.
The Belarusian leadership has managed to stretch in time the political cycle - liberalization followed by repressions - and move beyond the electoral campaigns. Simultaneously, Minsk has demonstrated a rather high mobilisation potential under political slogans, despite the pressure from the state media and security forces before and during Freedom Day, including the presence of armed officers and new special equipment to disperse demonstrations in the streets of Minsk. That said, in other towns (Vitebsk, Gomel, Brest and Grodno) the Freedom Day march led by the opposition, was sanctioned by the local authorities (except Vitebsk), albeit there were fewer participants than in February and March protests against the decree on social dependants.
The Belarusian leadership has depersonalised (removed leaders) the protest, preventively weakened the protest movement, and has not opted for the harsh crackdown like in 2010 with many injured and hundreds arrested. For instance, some party leaders were preventively arrested or detained (Lebedko, Rymashevsky, Gubarevich, Neklyaev, Logvinets, Severinets) before the event. Nikolai Statkevich has disappeared and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Some could not pass through the police cordons (Yanukevich and Kostusev) or participated in the rallies in the regions (Dmitriev, Korotkevich and Milinkevich).
Despite the lack of protest leaders, some demonstrators managed to self-organize and march down the Minsk centre. The march was unauthorised but gathered several thousand participants. Many were detained by the law enforcement and later released without charges. In addition, the Belarusian law enforcers used some tactics of the western riot police against peaceful protesters, allegedly in order to mitigate the criticism from Western capitals.
Nevertheless, the Belarusian authorities have used the entire set of propaganda and power mechanisms applied during the highly politicised 2006 and 2010 elections - criminal prosecution of the opposition leaders, preventive detentions and arrests of activists, harsh propaganda campaign in the state media and, finally, the crackdown on the protest action in Minsk with the use of force.
Overall, the mobilisation potential of the Belarusian society remains high and the authorities are likely to expand the legal framework for public participation in politics in order to absorb superfluous tension.