Minsk-Kiev: love is gone, but mutual interest remains
Statements by Ukrainian politicians about a possible closure of the Minsk process and potential military threats from Belarus, are not least because of the internal political process in Ukraine. Although a crisis matures in the Belarusian-Ukrainian political relations, the pragmatic bilateral interest outweighs politics.
Being at war, Ukraine is very sensitive to Belarusian moves contrary to the position of Kyiv. Belarus, due to complex relations with Russia, cannot take a clear pro-Ukrainian position. Hence, growing political distrust between the two states is only natural.
While not denying the validity of Kyiv’s claims to Minsk, the following should be marked.
Amid socio-economic crisis in Ukraine, external threat has united Ukrainian society and distracted it from domestic issues. This could explain recurrent untrue statements by Ukrainian high-level politicians about the concentration of the Russian troops on the Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine. Minsk agreements and the Minsk process were imposed on Ukraine. Both, the Ukrainian society and political elite are not satisfied with the results of Minsk talks. There is a political demand for a de facto waiver of Minsk agreements by Ukraine, hence, doubts about Belarus' equidistance from the parties to the conflict is only part of a complex mosaic.
That said, Kyiv rejected several proposals from Minsk, aimed at creating a system of trust in the security field between the two states, referring to undue close relations between Belarus and Russia. Kyiv believes there is a threat that sensitive information may leak to Moscow, i.e. there is lack of trust to Belarus.
Minsk is ready to give some guarantees to Kyiv in the security sphere within its capacities and interests. Obviously, Ukraine anticipated something more. Meanwhile, de facto bilateral cooperation in various fields is so important for both states, that neither Belarus nor Ukraine is ready to give up the benefits it brings. In this situation, Kyiv is unlikely to take any action, which could damage the existing cooperation between Belarus and Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians are likely to tighten their rhetoric vis-a-vis Belarus. Albeit the trust between the leaders of the two countries fell sharply, pragmatic interests would guarantee conflict-free Belarusian-Ukrainian relations.
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.