Minsk enhances negotiating position in dialogue with European Union
Minsk has deliberately aggravated relations with the EU believing that it strengthened its bargaining position in the Belarusian-European dialogue. By refocusing on the death penalty, Minsk aims to defuse Europe’s criticism over human rights violations and deficit of democracy in the country. Apparently, the Belarusian authorities attempt to translate enhanced contacts with European capitals into economic benefits, especially given the oil and gas dispute with the Kremlin.
Since early 2016, Belarus executed four convicts. Despite the desire to normalize relations with the European capitals, in 2016, the Belarusian authorities resumed executions after a long break since November 2014. The Belarusian authorities were ready to harsh criticism by the EU and the international community, because they knew how important the death penalty issue was for the Belarusian-European dialogue. The decision to execute three convicts was made during an active phase of the dialogue with the EU and increased contacts and official visits from Western capitals to Minsk.
The Belarusian authorities are convinced that the EU will not resume the sanctions policy and will retain the established dynamics in Belarusian-European normalisation. However, the Belarusian authorities have sent a signal to Western capitals that the current format of relations has reached its limits and that they would like to receive economic benefits from cooperation, rather than a boost in contacts.
In addition, by putting the death penalty issue at the top of the European-Belarusian agenda, the Belarusian authorities have diverted the focus of the EU from the criticism of the 2016 parliamentary campaign, the NPP construction near the border with Lithuania and other requirements put forward by Western capitals in human rights and democratisation spheres.
Overall, the Belarusian authorities anticipate reducing a broad list of problem issues on the Belarusian-European agenda to discussions about the abolition of the death penalty.
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.