Minsk seeks to demonstrate to NATO its independence
Minsk continues manoeuvring between the West and Russia in anticipation to cooperate with each party to the conflict. Minsk aims to establish multi-level communication channels with the West, while it offers further cooperation in the security field to Russia, and promises to the West to facilitate stability in the region. That said, the Belarusian authorities are not ready to commit to the West in the security field.
Belarus is the only Eastern Partnership country, which was not invited to the Warsaw NATO Summit. The Alliance leadership invited even the most consistent Russian ally, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. The fact that Belarus was not invited was a clear message to Minsk that it could sit on two chairs in political matters, but security issues required taking a clear side.
On July 6th-7th, 2016, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei paid a working visit to Latvia. Among other things, during the meeting with his Latvian counterpart Edgars Rinkevich, he emphasised the development of inter-institutional contacts, including in the field of defence. That said, Latvia is currently representing NATO states in Belarus.
Developing a dialogue and cooperation between different ministries and departments of the two countries requires trust and understanding between the parties. In the near future, Belarusian and Latvian state bodies are planning to conclude agreements on cooperation. Since both parties raised defence matters during negotiations, such an agreement might also be concluded between the Defence Ministries of Belarus and Latvia.
In addition, Minsk intends to develop relations with NATO and facilitate Russia’s dialogue with the Alliance. While the latter could be regarded as an attempt to preserve Minsk’s image as a ‘peacekeeping platform’, Minsk-NATO relations is a complex phenomenon.
Belarus is concerned about potential escalation between Russia and NATO. If current crisis translates into an armed conflict, Belarus is unlikely to stay away from it. Russia would perceive such an attempt as a betrayal, or a hostile move with all the consequences. The West does not trust the Belarusian authorities. Despite Minsk’s political manoeuvres, from a military standpoint, NATO assumes that in the case of a military conflict, Belarus will be committed to Russia. Hence, there would be no other alternatives for NATO than military pressure on Belarus.
Belarusian National Security and Defence sector is extremely closed. Establishing direct contacts between the relevant agencies of Belarus and Latvia will not only contribute to mutual trust, but would make Belarus more clear and "transparent" for the EU and NATO. Belarus and Latvia have no historical contradictions and Belarus has a traditionally strong lobby in Riga. This means, for Minsk, Latvia is clear and predictable partner.
Hiding behind the rhetoric of facilitating confidence-building between NATO and Russia, Minsk will seek to establish multi-level communication channels with the West. If successful, such a policy would have a long-term importance for Belarus’ national security. NATO would stop perceiving Belarus together with Russia as a threat, albeit hypothetical. And the Kremlin would have fewer possibilities to drag Belarus into a potential conflict with NATO: it is better to have a relatively friendly neutral state than push Belarus into the arms of the West. That said, Belarusian defence capacity against the background of many NATO countries looks quite impressive, albeit obsolete.
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.