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 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.