Minsk fails to synchronize a dialogue with the EU
On March 23, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry regretted the expansion of the EU sanctions against Belarusian officials and companies and stated that the return of the EU ambassadors to Minsk was undesirable.
On the eve of the EU Foreign Ministers Council’s discussion on sanctions against Belarus (March 22-23), Belarus has used several sources to send “positive signals”. For instance, on March 20, information leaked that “a proposal to Poland to resume a dialogue” was one of the issues on the agenda in a meeting in the Presidential Administration. On the same day the leader of the “Tell the truth!” campaign, Uladzimir Niakliaeu, said in an interview that the authorities were prepared to release some political prisoners. Also, on the same day Minsk City Executive Committee authorized the opposition to hold a rally and a march on March 25 [to celebrate the Freedom Day, the day when Belarusian People’s Republic was announced in 1918]. Finally, twice during the past week the prosecutor’s office stated that it was finalizing examination of the information about the use of torture against ex-candidate Sannikov in prison.
Such frequency of allusions concerning potential resumption of a dialogue indicates there are two generic features attributable to the Belarusian foreign policy. Firstly, surrounding of President Lukashenko sees no benefits from the normalization of political relations with the EU. Secondly, the authorities have no clear-cut strategy of normalization of the relations. Therefore, different departments use exclusively tactical responses within a format of “action – reaction”, or in other words, as Lukashenko says, “we will not bend over as they compel us”. This explains the toughened position of the Foreign Ministry.
These two features make it extremely difficult to assess when Minsk might start fulfilling the conditions set by the EU and will start acting instead of sending signals. The EU conditions are perceived by the Belarusian authorities as pressure, and their fulfillment as an indication of weakness. Therefore, the non-expansion or narrowing of the sanctions by the EU on March 23 would not necessarily result in the release of political prisoners.
The most likely response of the authorities would be, for example, the release of some political prisoners in compliance with the EU demands and simultaneous compensation in a form of repressions against other citizens. That was the practice of the autumn of 2011, i.e. ex-presidential candidate Dmitry Uss was released in October and a human rights defender Bialiatski was sentenced to 4.5 years prison term with confiscation of property in November.
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.