Minsk looks for the Kremlin in cautious rapprochement with Warsaw
Minsk is counting on further normalisation of Belarusian-Polish relations with no strings attached in exchange for demonstrating a commitment to regional security. That said, the Belarusian authorities are ready to discuss pain points in Belarusian-Polish relations: the Polish minority issue and the unofficial Union of Poles, accreditation of the independent media, easing pressure on the opposition and the visa liberalisation issue. Nevertheless, Belarus is likely to look for the Kremlin’s reaction when communicating with Poland.
Following talks with Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski in Minsk, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makey said that Belarus was ready to discuss all outstanding issues in relations with Poland.
Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski was the first EU foreign minister to visit Minsk after Brussels lifted sanctions against the Belarusian leadership. In addition, the Polish Foreign Minister’s working visit in Minsk was the first for the past eight years of bilateral relations.
The Belarusian authorities had not confirmed Waszczykowki’s meeting with the Belarusian President until the last moment, they met, however, on the second day of the visit.
In addition to meetings with the president and Foreign Minister Makey, the Polish Foreign Minister met with representatives of civil society and the opposition in Minsk, as well as with the leadership of the unofficial Belarusian Union of Poles in Grodno.
The talks’ agenda focused on bilateral relations (outside the Belarusian-European context), including outstanding issues, such as the Polish minority and the unofficial Union of Poles, accreditation of the independent media, pressure on the opposition, and the small border traffic. In addition, the parties have discussed international issues, such as ensuring regional security.
The Belarusian leadership expressed satisfaction with talks with the Polish Foreign Minister and Warsaw’s readiness for unconditional normalisation of relations. In particular, Minsk welcomed Warsaw’s departure from the pressure policy and the support for the idea of a ‘colour revolution’ to change Belarusian leadership.
The Polish Foreign Minister stated his committal to evolutionary development of Belarus, to which the Belarusian president responded with a promise of democracy "not less than in Poland”. These words indicate that the Belarusian authorities have interpreted the change in the EU approaches to relations with Belarus as acceptance of existing domestic policies, hence, they will continue with the conservative political line.
Yet Belarus is not interested in simplifying the visa regime with the EU, including the local border traffic with Poland. Most likely, this is due to economic reasons, rather than political ones. For instance, Minsk is worried about potential increase in Belarusians crossing the border to do shopping in Poland and currency outflow from the country, as well as a drop in sales of Belarusian goods and at Belarusian retailers. Au contraire, the Belarusian authorities have undertaken measures to restrict Belarusians from purchasing goods abroad.
It is worth noting that Moscow sees Warsaw as one of the most hostile European states with high anti-Russian sentiments. President Lukashenka, hence, attempted to prevent possible attacks by the pro-Kremlin media regarding enhanced contracts with Western capitals. "If partners, with whom we are in a dialogue, will insist that we chose between the East or the West, that is, between Russia or the European Union,[...] such a position is not appropriate for us”, he said.
Overall, if Western capitals start criticising Belarus for human rights violations, the Belarusian authorities would be prepared to discuss the issue yet without any serious intentions to change their approaches. In addition, the Belarusian authorities are likely to avoid pressure on the Polish minority organisation in order to relieve potential tension in Polish-Belarusian relations.
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.