Minsk attempts to mitigate sanctions confrontation between Kremlin and West

April 22, 2016 19:03

Official Minsk is increasing contacts with European capitals in order to neutralise pressure from the Kremlin which seeks to involve Belarus in the sanctions standoff with the West. Amid the food war between Russia and Belarus, the latter hopes to unlock the Belarusian-European relations on her terms, i.e. establish politically unconditioned pragmatic cooperation. In addition, official Minsk is trying to mitigate the sanctions confrontation between Russia and the West.

The Belarusian authorities are trying to engage Brussels in resolving the Russo-Belarusian economic contradictions. Last week, Belarus’ Foreign Ministry held a meeting with EU ambassadors represented in Minsk. After the meeting the Foreign Ministry underscored that: “During the meeting, the parties exchanged their views on problematic issues in Russo-Belarusian relations, as well as about the Eurasian integration development. In this context, a point was made about the importance of a dialogue and cooperation between Belarus and the EU.”

Interestingly, Russian restrictions on food imports from Belarus are similar in nature to the sanctions enacted by Russia against the foodstuffs from the EU. According to CIS Economic Council Chairman and a Council of Ministers member, Sergei Rumas, the Russian authorities are deliberately delaying the decision to lift all restrictions on supplies from Belarus to Russia. Currently, Russia has lifted restrictions only with regard to six Belarusian enterprises out of twenty. Meanwhile, on December 13th, the Russian consumer protection agency said that salt produced by Belarusian Mozyrsol and Belkali failed to comply with Russia’s dietary requirements.

Amid its isolation from the international community, the Kremlin needs to demonstrate that it has a loyal neighbour, Belarus. Regarding Belarus’ role in the confrontation between Russia and the West, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "Nevertheless, to date, this issue [sanctions against the EU] has not been on the Custom’s Union agenda…. However, we do not rule out that such a need may arise in the future”.

Belarus however is not comfortable with the Kremlin’s desire to drag Belarus into its confrontation with the West. President Lukashenko highlighted Belarus’ desires to relieve tension in the region: "Belarus fully supports equal cooperation between the countries, devoid of pressure and coercion. We advocate for the abolition of any sanctions. So as they directly affect people’s living standards." Most likely, Minsk is trying to act as a negotiator to mitigate the sanctions standoff between Russia and the EU. At the meeting with EU Ambassadors, the president has once again reiterated his viewpoint on the relations with the EU, which suggests a pragmatic approach without political conditions.

Official Minsk is confident that it will soon be able to impose its agenda in the Belarusian-EU relations, mainly due to increased role of geopolitical factors in the EU and US foreign policies. While meeting with EU Ambassadors, President Lukashenko underscored his balanced approach and hinted about the unacceptability of the eastern neighbour’s actions: "Some states seek to influence not only the regional processes, but are also trying to change the global balance of power”. Interestingly, similar rhetoric could be used by the president during the meetings with the Russian representatives and refer to the EU and US actions in the region.

Growing contradictions in Russo-Belarusian relations are prompting the latter to improve her relations with the EU, including economic cooperation and an increase in contacts with Western capitals to neutralise the pressure from the Kremlin. However, Belarus has no plans to develop political relations with the EU, which reduces the likelihood of political prisoners being released , or the political regime softening ahead of the 2015 presidential campaign.

Growing contradictions in the Russo-Belarusian relations are prompting the latter to improve the economic relations with the EU, but not political.

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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.